Transformation is a huge ingredient in art, the sack of plaster, the tube of paint, the carefully formed wood, the exposure of light against film. Material taken from one place, processed in some way and then presented anew. In Memory’s Prism, the opening track on Mandatory Reality was originally conceived as a soundtrack to the artist, Simon Starling’s film accompanying Project for Rift Valley Crossing. Starling’s work often features boats, and in this work, one is made from magnesium filtered out of a huge quantity of water, then fashioned into a canoe which makes a journey across the very water it was extracted from. The vessel and the water are opposite forms, grown from the same source.
Taking that logic further, transformation in sound at its most fundamental could be seen as silence becoming sound – two states of the same material. And sound could be seen as a sonic place marker in a space. Pluck, tap, blow or activate the instrument in a multitude of ways to create a mark on a blank page. Done again, it references the previous time and creates an expectation of the next. Quickly, the act becomes a rhythm or grid in time, your ears, body and memory.
Every time I’ve written about Joshua Abrams with or without his ensemble Natural Information Society, (Simultonality or his solo Excavations 1) the graphic representation of the music is always an instantaneous insight of the structure at play on the release. Interlocking graphic forms on the sleeve (always thoughtfully cropped paintings created by the harmonium player in the group – Lisa Alvarado) give a true sense of the density, variety and scale of the music within. This time, the forms are bigger than before with that ever-present sense of hand drawn precision, repeating edges and outlines. As a further vocabulary, the 4 colours (silver, brown, lime and dark green) could easily marry up to the 4 hugely related pieces stretching out to over 80 minutes of intoxicatingly beautiful sound.
Sonically, Mandatory Reality is a completely acoustic affair, the ensemble plays guembri, harmonium, tam-tam, gongs, autoharp, piano, tabla, tar, cornet, alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flutes… Instruments that give the sense of a journey that could have taken place centuries ago with sound generators carefully chosen to enmesh together rather than create an unwieldy vista. Think Don Cherry re-imagining Popul Vuh’s In Den Gärden Pharoas and recording it in a geodesic dome in some luscious wilderness.
The album opens In Memory’s Prism with a slow plodding rhythm. Light slowly overwhelming darkness with a beautiful incremental looping. Taken into account the music was originally commissioned as the soundtrack to Starling’s piece, it’s easy to imagine the pace mapped out here as paddle strokes and breaths. The brass opens up like a twist in the landscape revealing new features as the sun slowly creeps across the land. This is a sonic tapestry made of jazz thread, woven into some beautifully satisfying minimal rug. This is no hard-edged study in repetition, rather an exploration of the tiny opportunities within the grid. Every player is individually and as a group, navigating the bubbles and ripples in time for 24 breath-taking minutes.
In Memory’s Prism has already offered something quite special, so when Finite starts with the very same block of guembri, the album impossibly levitates the mind even higher. The album has no centre pieces, the whole thing is the centre piece. Settling into another heady groove spectacularly framed with tabla and dusted with tinkling piano after only a minute and driving straight into your third eye for another 39. The breathy push pull theme that fully establishes after 3 minutes had me grinning from ear to ear and if I’m totally honest, welling up at the staggering beauty. A pattern, a groove and a gift. The harmonium wobbles in like a psychedelic primal wah wah pedal basking your brain in joyous sunbeams.
Over the course of the remaining half hour, the music slowly realigns itself like a jazz band playing Carl Stone’s Sking Kee. A gradually modifying loop picking up new edges, fissures and birthing an inexhaustible cache of compatible fragments out of the momentum. The first 2 tracks amounting to 65 minutes and nothing here feels remotely bloated or gluttonous. Music as agile and heady as I’ve heard.
After the huge naturalistic space of the previous two tracks, Shadow Conductor feels like entering ruins in the jungle. Right angles and man-made geometries jarring after an extensive bucolic drift. This is however just the intensification of a more insistent pulsing, flashing groove. Somehow, again, the music stretches impossibly even further than it would seem reasonable to expect. At a tight 12 minutes, it feels like the duration is directly related to the additional physicality required to play this innovative driving re-filtered space rock masterpiece. The group have morphed into a thicker, richly composed super sludge and the rhythm is pure cro-magnon. Wave after wave, whipping up a searing chamber of magma. This is Terry Riley jamming with Electronic Meditation era Tangerine Dream – we are in the orgasmic.
The overall arc of these three tracks so far simplistically revealing themselves to be one theme that moves from spacious to intense. The whole album feels like a completely accessible microcosm building towards a focus of some sort. The closer, Agree feels like a ceremony deep in the forest. A twisting convergence of flutes played by the entire ensemble. The players by this point stripped of their individual devices but not their voices. Playing together in unison, morphing, overlapping, absorbing and bouncing off each other – a brilliantly crystallised shard of sound to end the album – a transformation completed.
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society have in the last few years produced several spectacular releases. The previous group release, Simultonality remains a staggering collection that stands as one of the strongest releases in recent years that’s come our way. But, Mandatory Reality is only just hitting our speakers and feels like an album that’s impossibly, even at this early stage, light years better. This album has deeply, and positively affected me, living within its floating boundaries for huge chunks of my days. I’d be surprised if another release this year is quite as richly immersive.
It’s a pure joy, deeply magical and beyond recommendation.