Crucible (2022)

Some of my albums have no particular story, no underlying thematic glue or particular point of inspiration when I’m creating them.  I might impose an identity on these albums after the fact, but they really just exist as exercises in sound and composition for their own sake.  Crucible is one such.

There are, however, two things this album shares with all other music I make: the music is always a process of spontaneous exploration, in order to get as lost as possible; and it is always, in some sense, mapping my inner landscape at the time of creating it, a dialogue with my internal state.  I respond concurrently to sounds as they arise, and my feelings as they arise, and both inform each other.

The three collections preceding this album (Temple, Kro Gnosis and Xenografika) were linked by some similar leanings into exotic ethnic musical motifs and suggestions of the mystic, esoteric or devotional – at least as a textural overlay. While the first two of this ‘trilogy’ were a return for me to ‘real live’ instruments, Xenografika was entirely me exploring a new musical toy: the Pianobook collection of digitally sampled instruments.

Crucible is simply me continuing to explore this amazing online library of sampled sounds.  And as with my discovery of Spitfire Audio’s free LABS sampled piano & strings instruments during our 2020 lockdown, I will no doubt continue to refine my use of these musical resources for a long while yet.

These pieces really have no cohesive thread between them. Some lean towards slightly abstract, some suggest a jazz twinge, others are more cinematic, almost baroque or neo-classical in tone, but I think they’re all fairly accessible. 

The opening track, Sublimation, is distinct from the other pieces, a kind of breezy ambient, with very drifty piano floating like a ‘sound mobile’ over a lightly skittish synth rhythm track.  The track’s title has multiple meanings; to sublimate is to change the form, but not the essence. In chemistry it describes the transformation of solid to vapor without passing through a liquid state – as per fog or steam rising off the surface layer of snow or ice, without melting.  In psychology, sublimation can describe the channeling of a ‘base’ urge (potentially destructive, raw or violent) into something more creative. I borrowed the term from alchemy (a form of chemical ‘magick’ symbolising archetypes of psychological transformation), as it describes both processes, and seemed pertinent to my own inner work.

The Heat Of Our Breath is a moody, sinuous, downbeat drift, with a smoky sax alone in some shadowy corner, submerged piano, and intermittent (gl)itchy textures. The main descending riff is played on The Lamp, a digital instrument made by sampling an IKEA dining room lamp (here’s a video of it).  When I created this piece, its atmosphere reminded me of that kind of dark, thick intimate heat exchange that happens when two lovers lie close together, face to face, breathing in each other’s breath.

Arterial Motion is a bit more abstract, built on an irregular pulse of rubbery doublebass samples, and floating chordal layers of tenor horn, sax and flugelhorn. Also reaching through the murky fog are the plaintive voices of clarinet and oboe. The piece deconstructs into a quasi-space opera interlude before slithering out on an asymmetrical sax melody. For some reason the whole thing made me think of the constant internal pulsations of the body.

A Crucible is both a vessel for heating metals at very high temperatures, and a situation of severe trial or testing, out of which something new is born. Pyre Dance continues this loose theme of heat and transformational fire. The ceramic percussion pulse, the pan flutes and the swaying 5/4 rhythm weave together to create a sense of ceremonial solemnity, a sensuous trance, an ancient circle dance. I imagine a night scene under a pitchblack sky, the leaping tongues of a funeral pyre lunging upward into the dark, blood orange flamelight flickering on the intent faces of people from some bygone race, as they slowly circle the mound, themselves danced by the rhythms of life and death.

There are many rich textural samples in the Pianobook palette, for creating drones, washes, and spatial atmospherics.  On many of the Crucible pieces I was layering 3 or 4 of these different textural ‘pads’ together, like blending paints of varying thickness across a canvas.  I featured this on Seraphic Oceans. As perhaps the name and the wavelike undulations suggest, I pictured an ocean of air rolling forever over the dust of a desolate planet, carrying the spectral voices of seraphim / mermaids on its endless tide.

A World Wept Into Being features two sampled string instruments: a handmade cedarbox plucked instrument and a dilapidated antique acoustic guitar. Both have some clunky edges, moments of slightly-out-of-tune-ness and unpolished character, which I found engaging.  The result was somewhat mournful baroque, and the guitar almost sounds like a harpsichord in places. I complemented this with oboe, clarinet and piano, with a touch of vocal choir sample (which I must admit felt a bit odd, but the samples have a rich texture).

The closing track, At Last, is another slow wash, a blanket of minimalist orchestral textures that rise and swell in a melancholic cycle. Not surprisingly, I was giving expression to another period of deep depression and grief when I composed this track. The title is a reference to the relief of death – that is, that however I continue to push myself through the crucible of existence, death is the only way I can imagine relief from the relentless dissonance, exhaustion and confusing assault of my life.

Once again, I’ve used one of Heidi’s photographic abstractions on the cover, for its density, somber weight and dark smoulder.