If I asked you to think about or describe certain points in the history of mankind, to talk about life as a caveman, Italy during the renaissance or how the industrial revolution changed northern England, chances are you’d describe how things looked. Your ideas of those periods would be based on the cave art, paintings or photography of the time.
What you might not mention is how things sounded. This is of course due to the relatively recent invention of methods to record, transport and playback sound, meaning that our aural past does not compare to a visual history that dates back many thousands of years.
Now you may contend that the balance has been redressed more recently, and that the history of radio is filled with memorable broadcasts of significant events. However, most of these transmissions are actually someone describing what happened, rather than the sound of the event actually happening.
This pre-amble is helping me to explain the importance and allure of the field recording. For much of the time since that invention of the Edison roll in the 1890’s, field recordings were predominantly the domain of anthropologists and ethnographers who documented the indigenous folk music of far-flung points of the globe. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that the use of non-musical recorded sound began to move away from purely science and research and towards art.
The ‘Musique Concrète’ movement in the late 40s began to loop sound recordings and making composition from ‘noises’ rather than instruments. This idea has developed subsequently and, via the Beatles making ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from tape loops and Brian Eno overlaying the sound of the English countryside with electronic tones, current artists like Four Tet and Burial continue to incorporate field recordings into their music. At times, it’ll be isolated sounds that are stretched, edited and reworked to form new instruments, and at others, the effect will be more subtle, with natural sounds adding texture or context to music recorded in a traditional way.
Enter Gareth Williams, trading as Llyr, and his new album Biome. This staggering piece of work takes field recordings made in the rainforests of Borneo and uses them (and only them) to create an album that ranges from ambient, textured soundscapes, through to full-on techno-bangers! While everything included on the album is a field recording, it has been treated and manipulated to the point that most of it sounds like a straight up, electronic IDM record.
It won’t be a surprise that such complex, intelligent and communicative music is being released on Max Cooper’s MESH label. Mesh’s tagline is ‘Exploring the intersection between music, art and science’ and they certainly deliver.
Previous releases have, for example, been based on random number data derived from the concept of zero point energy in quantum mechanics, or the idea that the universe is an infinitely large womb. It’s a label run by a computational biologist who both leads by example and sets very high standards.
A biome is a large area defined by its vegetation, soil, climate and wildlife. In Llyr’s case, Biome is about natural beauty and human interference. As I mentioned, it is made up entirely of recordings made in the rainforest, but those sounds are then painstakingly pulled apart, slowed-down, sped-up, changed in pitch, sampled and mapped, before being reassembled as music.
A rainforest certainly offers a rich palette of sound for Llyr to play with. The first half of the record, ‘Pre-Anthropocene’ is more recognisably the sound of the forest, yet at no point do we expect a David Attenborough voice-over. It features all manner of swarming bugs, howling monkeys, mating frogs and the wind in the trees. The first track, ‘Refuge of Majesty’ begins with what we might take for a fairly direct field recording of the sounds of the forest and its natural cacophony. But then, enter the main harmony that is actually a recording of a bird that has been transmogrified into a playable instrument and run through synthesisers to become an echoing drone that reflects the tension of being in such a majestic, diverse and alien place.
As we progress, these audio details become hypnotic. They suggest how the rainforest hums, with almost a background ‘static’, made of millions of tiny sounds from each creature it contains.
The stand-out track midway through this ‘pre-human’ section of the album is ‘Winged-Chamber Music’. This is the three-part exploration of a cave deep in the jungle and to the casual listener, gives few clues about how complex the structure of the track is, or quite what lengths Gareth went to to record it. Llyr isolated (his favourite) binaural recordings of individual bat wing-flaps and water droplets and uses these as instruments, along with the ultrasonic chattering of the bats, pitched down to a level that provides the bass hits in the song.
The track builds and we imagine the bats taking off into the cold, damp air, swirling around our heads before heading out into the night, leaving behind the unseen creatures that live in total darkness on the floor of the cave, eating only bat guano. And Gareth with his microphone!
This first side has mixed the micro-sounds of the individual creatures of the forest, with the macro; the sounds of the jungle as a whole. Individual elements have been plucked-out, looped, layered and manipulated, but the sources have remained untainted. The second half of the album, Anthropocene, is more beat driven and danceable. It’s darker too. The humans have arrived to interrupt the purity of the biome and sounds used now include a bass-line built from traffic rumbling past a cave entrance, tourist chatter on a jungle trail, a loose paving slab in a city at the edge of the forest and, entertainingly, a car alarm at a protected frog pond. These human sounds infiltrate the natural, and speak to the planet’s current ‘epidemic of noise pollution’.
On ‘The Hawthorne Effect’, that human interference extends to include the sounds of bugs hitting the microphone recording them, as they swarm after a rainstorm. It’s a natural sound but if the microphone hadn’t been there, that sound wouldn’t have happened.
Llyr describes his working method as ‘a series of consecutive obsessions’. This fantastic album is an immersive, intricate, rigorously designed, magnificently realised, categoric justification for the mind-boggling amount of time that he must have put into the project.
It can be enjoyed for the multi-faceted, high-concept commentary it provides on the changing world we inhabit and our responsibility to the wild places around us, or as one of the best ambient-techno records that you’ll hear this year.
Either way, do your imagination a favour and pick up a copy as soon as you can.