Phil Julian & Ben Owen - Between Landing

Phil Julian & Ben Owen – Between Landing

Phil Julian & Ben Owen - Between Landing

Better late than never? Phil Julian and Ben Owen‘s Between Landing is finally in a stereo system several months after release, and I am glad to have finally heard it.

The first impression is a tense one. Disregarding any familiarity with either artist’s body of work, the album overall tends towards an slightly unstable and brooding atmosphere. Taking their respective oeuvres into consideration, it is easy to get reluctant with the volume. Since Phil Julian has divorced his work from the Cheapmachines moniker, he has generally pursued a much noisier aesthetic. Ben Owen, for his part, has worked with stark field recordings and minimal electronics in something of an art brut manner. Recalling both the ear-splitting range of recordings like Ben’s ‘In Hull’ and the sizeable dynamic shifts in Phil’s recent works like Atlas and Live Flux, I listened through this recording at first quietly – and missed rather a lot as it turns out.

A particular set of challenges arises in editing live audio to reconstitute a new composition. The process is related by technical and emotional means to professional studio recordings of acoustic music, and related by a devolution of context to the practice of field recording. One can get easily bogged down in a maximalist approach, trying to capture any and all moments of successful improvisation with little regard for a cohesive narrative in the resulting work. Likewise, over-distillation of source can divorce its audio characteristics from causation, leading to a noticeably disjointed or arbitrary structure. Fortunately, Between Landing largely avoids these pitfalls.

The in-situ recording style of the opening section at first suggests unaltered improvisation, and the spatial dynamics (notably an edge of reverb and mild acoustic resonance) of both electronic and instrumental sounds lend the section a degree of intimacy that moderates its gloominess. After numerous minutes of a noisy silence, this atmosphere is flipped completely on its head when cleanly stereoscopic bass static interrupts the relative peace. In fact, it more than interrupts, but rather reframes the work from recorded to produced, from off-the-mic to off-the-board. One of the finer transitions of many on the album (though few of which appear on this opening track). There is a sense of magnifying the audio signal across ‘Between Landing I’, as though the electronic devices being used to capture the minimal electroacoustics of the opening section becomes themselves the source of material for its second half. This is particularly noticeable with late use of what appears to be electromagnetic interference from a computer. The bass static that starts off the section endures until its end; perhaps unnecessarily so, as it chews up a significant portion of the amplitude available for much of the punctual and enjoyable textures which fold in and out of the mix (in the first instance of where and why playback should be loud). On the other hand, it mirrors the softer pink noise prevalent in the first section and so reinforces the binary nature of the opening track, a simple duality that gathers complexity in the ensuing pieces.

‘Between Landing 2’ bears a broadly more linear structure, with plodding analogue components, variously amplified and explored or microscopically zoomed into in a cyclical fashion. There is again an underlying squarewave bed, but it is here dealt with more deftly than in the opening piece, weaving into the track for different durations on three separate occasions and providing a reference point throughout. The periodic use of fields and recording artifacts provides the opportunity for some nice timbral and tonal harmonics with its more electronic elements, which along with its even rises and falls in amplitude produces a strongly balanced metre. I would be curious to hear some of the original recordings from which the piece was built, as it sounds like some of the vigour of the improvisations may have been micromanaged out of the final iteration. However, the album as a whole comes to fruition on the final piece, ‘A Return’.

This is particularly where textural acrobatics are lost at lower volumes and spatial characteristics fade outside of headphones. Despite often heavy compression, and less dynamic range than either of the previous tracks, ‘A Return’ displays a wonderful degree of detail. Ben’s and Julian’s respective styles here are less a compromise and more a complement to one another. Its intensely rhythmic and overtly processed material, in addition to being a rather surprising result given their previous individual aesthetics, amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Broad and muscular, it maintains pace with heavy filtering, and poise with stuttering and noisy amplitude. The unabashed use of stereo panning is surprisingly effective and engaging, no doubt partly due to the unusually soft timbres initially chosen to process with the effect. I can’t tell if it’s in vogue these days or if I keep chancing upon it with unnatural frequency (much of Senufo‘s output obviously comes to mind) but apparently, 70 years on from the Leslie, there are still appropriate uses for phase shifting.

Between Landing is an odd duck, at times steeped in the formal language of EAI and at others uniquely fascinating. A worthwhile album for fans of either artist, but perhaps best suited to those listeners who thought they had Ben and Phil both pegged. Available directly from both Authorized Version and Auditory Field Theory.