The first release by Montréal’s Chris Strickland, issued on Cut And Run contributor Mathieu Ruhlmann’s imprint, caduc.. Being a friend of Mathieu’s, I’ve held a copy of this for some time now. I am writing only now partly out of deference to my potential bias (hoping a pause after its release would ease some of the self-induced pressure of affiliation), and partly because this album takes a bit of time to work out.
I’ve heard stories of Strickland’s work in passing from Mathieu and (contributor of some samples to the album) Joda Clément for some time now. They generally started with ‘There’s this guy from Montréal who makes incredible and strange music that nobody has heard,’ and carried along in rhapsodic tones. Though I place a great deal of trust in the judgement and taste of both gentlemen, I must admit that I had reservations – both positioned rather firmly in the electroacoustic improv canon, would their definition of Animal Expert as strange and unique fall flat in comparison to a wider range of material? Or on the other hand, as art brut would it be self-consciously experimental to the point of losing its ability to foster empathetic listening?
Contrary to the latter concern, my first recognition was of its polish. Though well-mastered by the indelible Joe Panzner and featuring an array of DSP techniques, I mean something rather different by the term. Across its widely varying dynamics and acoustic palettes, despite its noises and silences, there is a distinct clarity of voice. These are not basement jams nor flaccid computer-assisted drones, but carefully constructed pieces which, love them or hate them, stand very much on their own structural and aesthetic terms.
The opening track, ‘Vanity Arc’, is a series of vignettes, interspersing brief fields with a variety of widely dynamic electronic sounds or effects as precursors and appendices – a narrative structure that finds itself, with permutations, on each of the three works (though a look at their respective waveforms will show this one as particularly schizophrenic). While the liner notes instruct the listener to err on the side of loud volume for proper appreciation, one might find this difficult on the first track. Despite laying low in the mix, some extremely high-pitched tones (often exactly at 16 khz) strongly colour everything beneath them. They are rather frequent and, for me, elicit precisely the opposite action to the instruction. My first listen was on reference-grade headphones geared to a higher register, so this effect was admittedly moderated on a stereo system or bassier phones.
Warming to the track on different equipment, that polish became only more apparent. While the variety of sounds and fields can occasionally verge on the cacophonic, there is a strong causal order in its layout. Strickland makes excellent use of brief samples, clips, fields and the like to trigger shifts in tone, timbre, dynamics and amplitude. Bursts and barks of single sounds will abruptly cease one section and start the next anew, as though the musician were reacting to these stimuli in realtime. As throughout the album, many of these junctions are carried thematically through the track’s sections; most notably in ‘Vanity Arc’, a coin drop which bookends the more active stretch of the piece. This pleasingly moderates the extreme diversity in sound source and length which can otherwise come across as fractured or cluttered.
‘Mammoth Husbandry’ follows some of the sharp dynamic shifts of the opener, but additionally swells in aggressive tonality, becoming increasingly interruptive and digitally manipulated in its latter half. Here, the volume can be cranked, with some intriguing and alert rhythmic vocal and field sections to capture the listener’s attention. In comparison to the opener, its presentation is initially too predictable – sound A pans/fades in then out as sound B pans/fades in to replace it, to be repeated. However, this conspicuous metre may serve another purpose.
The finale, ‘Vaguely Human’, displays complementary timbres of electronic and acoustic sounds to excellent effect. One passage in particular, of whistling and sine waves that are just barely distinguishable from one another, is the most directly figurative play on a track’s title I’ve heard in some time. It is thankfully more humourous – pretty, even – than derivative or saccharine. In now typical form, much of the piece displays little loyalty to any particular genre, aesthetic type or instrumental praxis – digital noise will burst into the mix over extremely quiet fields or starkly minimal tonal beds as often as excerpts of opera. Little, as there is, in fact, some. The ‘interludes’ (a term used only in reference to their soft amplitude in relation to the rest of the work) are very similar between each of the three works, simple and quiet sine waves balanced between harmonic and dissonant sections occasionally joined by the ambient noise of recording equipment. This adds some welcome aesthetic and tonal cohesion to the work, forming a solid id at the core of the wild fluctuations of the album’s louder persona.
A review by Richard Allen at A Closer Listen (worth reading here) notes the hallmarks of noise music particularly present on this piece, while conceding that their presentation in this fashion brings attention to their inherent sonic, as opposed to socially or culturally determined, characteristics. This is true to a point. ‘Mammoth Husbandry’ maintains a great deal of textural and dynamic diversity with some relief in mild harmonics and easily navigable timbres – it even uses quite recognizable methods of digital sound processing – all of which reinforce the musical qualities of the noisy samples in use. That said, it seems there is more to be read from Allen’s recognition of Strickland’s careful curation of these sounds on a personal level, than from their potential role as polemic. The metre guiding the introduction and reduction of sounds invokes a sense of familiarity and rapport, much as the titles given to these works reinforce the deeply personal narrative constantly informing Animal Expert. It unfolds as a stream of consciousness, with miniature timelines and narrative arcs playing out in rapid succession, yet consistently underpinned with (usually digital) devices empathetic to the sounds occurring on either side of their span. It occasionally reminds of the literary style of Joyce or the Beats, or of the spastic divergences emanating from a single thread common to David Markson’s oeuvre.
The combination of a type of (what may be called informed) outsider approach with elements of domesticity would almost make this album at home on Swill Radio or Kye, if not for its more distilled digital detritus and treatments. It doesn’t always work, often verging on frantic or overwhelming, but it maintains an enjoyable element of surprise through repeated listens – a facet which is, even within the experimental domain under which it would ostensibly fall, rather rare. Lastly, it is well-grounded enough in its more relaxed phases to allow the listener the freedom to engage fully with its aggressive stretches. Whatever its faults, they are easily forgiven. I hope Chris Strickland’s next album arrives before five years time (as this one did), but whatever his unhurried practice, it is worthwhile waiting for.
Recommended and available from caduc..