Though a couple of months old, and having already garnered attention at Tiny Mixtapes, We Need No Swords and Vital Weekly, some recent discussions have brought me here to commit some thoughts on the role of the music criticism in general, and Kostis Kilymis‘s Komhths in particular, to this post.
My first impulse came from reading the aforementioned reviews. While I know admittedly little about We Need No Swords, occasionally peruse Tiny Mixtapes, and give full credit to Vital Weekly for their utterly prolific content, in each case their reviews lacked much valuable insight and added virtually nothing to a more comprehensive understanding of the work being reviewed. Clearly the quantity and quality of sources of criticism wax and wane, often even within single publications, and some benefit of the doubt should be provided. It is no surprise that given the sheer volume of music available for public consumption, a listener/reader will come across reviews that consist of little more than a itemized list of the constituent auditory elements of each track (often in metaphor and analogy of questionable qualities). Given the ease with which music may be previewed (Soundcloud), streamed (Bandcamp), bought (iTunes) and stolen (P2P), reviews of experimental audio analogous to literary music notation seem, at best, a waste of time for both the critic and the reader. If a listener wants to know what a given piece of music sounds like, they can quite easily listen to it. They turn to criticism for help in understanding how and why it does or does not function as art.
An expectation of routine publication, reinforced by the fast pace and cursory depth of consumption via social media, is one obvious precondition for this lack of insight. Another may be simple time constraints. Some reviewers may write with the well-intentioned hope of giving a particular under-appreciated genre, artist or album its dues, regardless of their aptitude for music criticism. Others may do so to reinforce their symbolic interactions with a community with which they identify. Some just want free schwag.
Of course, everyone who commits their criticism to a public sphere is influenced by all of these factors; the producers of this site and radio show, your current contributor included, are certainly no exception. I hope to improve the exposure of music that I respect, I am nebulously aware of both having and wanting varied roles to play in particular music and social communities, and I love free stuff. It is easy to recite these failings when reviews are posted here irregularly at best, owing at least in part to the dual functions most of the co-producers fulfill. As running an old-world radio show requires certain regular inputs, and failures in its output are recorded (literally) by everyone from the station’s Programming Director to the staff of the CRTC itself, this site can tend to get the tailings of our efforts. With no consequences for this site’s existence, beyond nominal values of hit counts, expectations for timeliness are kept low. All of this means that if I intend to spend the time, usually hours, to commit my thoughts to a post here, I intend to make it worthwhile for the reader.
Which brings me to my second impulse for this post. Besides some lukewarm words and the occasional pessimistic paragraph, the reviews I post here are largely positive. Given limited resources, and an audience with wide-ranging listening habits (you (occasionally, we) may not like Soundscape’s programming, but it is nothing if not diverse), part of our intent has been to encourage the cross-pollination of musical taste and technique between communities. If someone who listens to Soundscape for its elements of acoustic ecology visits Cut and Run to grab a download of Shangaan electro and enjoys a review of some noisy analogue electronic experiments, then we’ve done all we expect of ourselves. That said, it’s becoming increasingly clear that avoiding negative reviews is avoiding an essential part of well-rounded criticism. Without delving too deeply into my utter lack of patience and respect for vast swathes of music that I come across (or get sent) every day, I do think it is important to reflect on the qualities that detract from otherwise interesting oeuvres, or the habits of production and consumption which break a work’s integrity. This brings us to Komhths.
Kostis Kilymis’s More Noise Ahead was one of my favourite releases of 2012. It showed a compositional maturity, unflinching commitment to uncomfortable dynamic envelopes and a beautiful delicacy in construction that put him on par with some of Francisco Meirino’s better works. (Of course, Entr’acte’s spectacularly sexy vacuum-sealed foil packaging may have been working its Vodou.) Last year’s Arctic Saturation, though lacking much of an overall structure, excelled when it contrasted electronic and acoustic timbres and had a full complement of Kilymis’s patented, nearly hook-laden, syncopated rhythms on display. Komhths is the puritan to those polyglots, and unfortunately suffers for it.
One of the few insights into the work I did find in the literature was at We Need No Swords: “They are of, and about, only themselves…”. There is indeed something claustrophobic at work. Whatever the instrumentation used to produce Komhths, it results in a narrow dynamic range which moves extremely linearly. While some of the rhythmic patterns coaxed out of his setup would act as interesting complements even to one another, they rarely overlap constructively. Instead, we hear elements briefly break away from the driving narrative in piecemeal fashion, as though Kilymis weren’t quite sure what effect a given action would have, only to quickly recant it. There is potential for this progression to play out organically in a self-propelled manner like machine-music in fine form, but the process as a whole crossfades from one section to another in such a predictably chronological fashion as to leave almost nothing to the imagination. Its tonal sections stand alone more easily, and
The disappointment is that there are some unique facets to the pieces which could fascinate were they better developed. Some of the delightfully syncopated rhythms I mentioned earlier for which Kilymis is known appear in ‘Comet’. While they more effectively anchor the listener’s attention to that piece than either of the other two manage, their scope is muddled – too self-consciously experimental and wandering to be ascetic, too structurally deficient to be of much interest compositionally. Given Kilymis’s proven talent, there is little on display here to elevate this release above a low-fidelity improvisation or demo tape.
There is some merit to be found in its documentary value and enjoyment may be wrought from its simple existence as an oddity in Kilymis’s ouvre. As an exposé of artistic process, it offers some interesting insight into what seem to be the building blocks Kilymis uses for more comprehensive works. Further, listeners of a particular ethos should take what opportunities they can to lend some financial support to such small, devoted, and carefully manufactured labels as Hideous Replica. I mention the latter as not only are the case and j-card tactilely pleasing, but the electronics in use produce far more background noise than does the professional tape dubbing.
It does leave the question of precisely why such a set of recordings was published, as Kilymis has certainly released better material and may yet still. For that matter, so has Hideous Replica and its acerbically titled sub-label Wasted Capital Since 2013. I suspect that among other considerations, publication was mutually beneficial to the promotion and cross-pollination of both artist and label. If Komhths leads listeners of Kostis Kilymis to the discovery of some of the other lesser-known and more intriguing material on the label by Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan or Sybella Perry, then this curiosity has found its place. That is precisely the function it fulfilled for me.
Get it directly from Hideous Capital.