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Al Fraser, Sam Leamy and Neil Johnstone - Album Review: Panthalassa

17 Sep 2019 // A review by Trevor Faville
This trio of highly experienced creators (aided by an impressive cast of guest contributors) have created a suite of sonic explorations with quite clear ‘‘abstract and impressionist” intent. The attendant press notes explain in detail the scope, intent and process of this work. Conceptually it has been thoroughly thought out, and carefully executed.

Suffice it to say that this is a collection of work that is epic in scope and ambition. As its essence they have taken recorded sounds from hydrophonic recordings, and carefully blended in electronic instruments and a range of taonga puru. Two of the pieces feature vocals sung in Te Reo Maori. While the intent is clearly programmatic, there isn’t an overarching narrative sense as such. It feels more like a series of snapshots of a vast., sullen and unknowable landscape. A quick look at the geological definition of the title of this collection reveals a lot.

The titles of the pieces also say a great deal (Paleozoic Dawn, Glacial Imprints, Echolocution),the overall effect is quite non-human, the ‘human’ quality comes from the use of taonga puru, and occasional sung Te Reo - once again empahsising an otherworldly distance from the listener. The skill in the creators is apparent here, the blend is such that it is rare to be able to hear something that is specifically produced by a person. The blend of ‘natural’ and ‘human’ is pretty much seamless- a powerful aural metaphor of environmental awareness- given one of compositional intentions is to reflect on “the potential loss of this environment”.

The key elements are that of timbre, and careful slowly evolving structures. It's the sound of immeasurable forces meeting immovable objects, sudden explosions after aeons of pressure, the sound of ancient alien landscapes with unsettling calms and epic explosives- mountains fall into oceans, watched by giant silent sea creatures. As such, this most certainly does not belong in any ‘relaxing ambient’ playlist and in all likelihood sits right out on the edge of the ‘popular’, but listeners to whom “rock’ includes some of the explorations of Eno (listen to Zawinul/Lava from Another Green World), Bowie, Cale, Can, et al might find themselves on relatively familiar ground. Then, add the work of Varese, Stockhausen, Cage and that particular brand of New Zealand's electronic composers from the 1950's/60's like John Rimmer and Ross Harris, and you could get a sense of some reference points musically (possibly) and conceptually (more likely).

It's all in here. On one hand, not an easy listen, on the other, it's a very easy one indeed - and certainly a rewarding one. Panthalassa as a whole is like the soundtrack to a movie you don’t need to see. There are echoes of the original electronic composers in that sense of an emotional distance which is simultaneously the most alienating and compelling part of this work. It's like looking through a telescope for a detailed view of something a very long way away.
Rating: ( 4 / 5 )
 

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