Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Top Ten begins with Land Observations - Roman Roads, IV-XI (Mute Records)

In previous years Reverberations conducted a marathon, day by day, countdown of the top 25 albums from the waning year. This year, between today and the end of the month, we will take a bit less ambitious approach, chronicling only the top 10 releases of 2012.  In January, in addition to reviews of brand spanking new music, we will also make occasion to reflect on some of the year's other fine recordings. 

For our top 10 countdown, many of these selections will have been covered previously in Reverberations, in which event we will simply link you to the earlier review. A few of these, however, will require new reviews. 

 Such is the case with our first covered release, 2012's number 10 record, Roman Roads IV=XI, from Land Observations.

The British band Appliance eluded me. Active between the late Nineties and 2003, the band recorded for Mute Records, now home to the band’s guitarist and chief auteur, James Brooks.

Brooks’ work is released under the nom de music Land Observations. LO’s new album Roman Roads IV-XI follows an ep entitled Roman Roads I-III, in case you were wondering.

Brooks is also a visual artist, and his intent with Land Observations is to make music that reflects his visual art themes. Currently those themes concern maps and cartography, and their implicit sense of boundary and space. Once you know that, this music makes intuitive, structural sense.

 Brooks plays electric guitar with various pedals and loops. His musical vision is both tactile and electronic. It’s clearly influenced by the early electronica of Krautrock, Kraftwerk in particular, but there is something pristine and British, almost pastoral and folk about Brooks’ austere constructions.

The Roman Roads are indeed inspired by Roman roads, some in Italy, some in Britain. This is not music you play for someone hoping to provoke a quick reaction. In fact, it is a bit like the aural equivalent of watching paint dry, Brooks’ pieces develop slowly, stating simple themes, developing them very gradually and elegantly, adding occasional counterpoint, but never building to any cheap shot crescendo. Bell-like guitar tones, accompany insistent bass lines as these tracks build in their molasses-like fashion, like landscapes passing idly by on a bullet train, time and space reflected and distorted by mediation, meditation and pure focus.

There is a metric insistence to tracks like “Aurelian Way,” “From Nero’s Palace,” and “Appian Way” that is deceptive, given the slow, percolating nature to Brooks’ development of themes. “Nero’s” reminds of everything from Phil Spector to the Strokes - simply in terms of melodies and tones; within a relatively narrow sonic palette, Brooks suggests, sounds from French horn to bells, the latter apparent in a tinntinabular descending line that weaves in and out of the tune’s central heartbeat, then evolving into the sort of songbird guitar sounds Verlaine and Llloyd used on songs like “Carried  Away” with Television.

“Appian Way,” on the other hand, simultaneously recalls Joy Division (bass themes) and Kraftwerk (their icy, electronic call and response); the composition has a night driving rhythm that at once dissolves in shimmering guitar textures, not unlike the work of Terje Rypdal.

“The Chester Road” is subliminally suggestive, a child of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and the atmosphere Paul Buckmaster’s strings brought to the Rolling Stone’s “Moonlight Mile.”

Roman Roads intelligently conveys both the similarities and differences between the landmarks it honors by presenting a musical program that is all of a piece, yet marked by shade and contrast between the compositions. Immaculately conceived and both gorgeous and severe in execution Roman Roads is a minor masterwork of evocation, precision and grace. 

Reverberating: 8.5