No Words Needed

This is what austerity sounds like. Anti-government protestor, Athens.

MAGAM’s new album, Another, is a tour-de-force of eccentricity. The companion to the band’s 2017 debut, One, conceptually linked by a play written by a band member who goes by the mysterious name of “moody alien”, it avoids conventionality with a steely rigour. Yet this refusal to play by the rules does not sound nearly as perverse as you might expect. The record isn’t a black mass, inverting tropes to make its rebelliousness as obvious as possible, but a grey one, its far-flung components coming together to make music that is subtly deviant.

Frequently, music that aspires to be called “experimental” sounds better on screen or paper than it does coming through headphones or speakers. Just as the art world reached a crisis point in the 1960s, when it became almost impossible to separate the words used to describe a work from the work itself, experimental music culture today is struggling to sort words from deeds. Sometimes it can seem as though fans of this meta-genre would rather talk than listen.

All music is recorded in a particular place, on a particular day, on a particular instrument, even if that happens on somebody’s laptop. But when this particularity is cited as proof that an album deserves special attention, the line between text and context blurs to the point of futility. If a record is made while eight women in red jumpsuits twirl counter-clockwise next to the musicians while Tarkovsky’s Solaris plays silently on a large flat-panel behind them, it will still sound the same objectively as if they had been playing in an otherwise vacant studio. Once the listener is provided with this context, however, it becomes almost impossible to bracket the information and hear the music on its own terms. The descriptive supplement is insidious.

What sets MAGAM’s records apart is their facility for breaking free of this literary burden, without having to pull a Burial. Not knowing anything about how a record is made also produces distracting effects. Knowing that moody alien’s play informs both One and Another is important. So is being made aware that they feature glockenspiels, vibraphone, and windchimes which, while “processed,” are not fabricated wholly from software. The difference between these details and the sort that factor in descriptions of so much experimental music is that they are not unduly fetishized.

While the Abandon LP by Montreal’s [The User] recorded in an empty grain silo is eerily wonderful, it’s hard not keep thinking about its situatedness. The same goes for the superb, concept-driven catalogue of Matmos or much of Matthew Herbert’s work. No matter how much these artists’ records lock into a groove, the extra-ness of the context in which they were created looms large. On Another, by contrast, knowledge of why or even how it was made functions as a desaturated background, perceptible if you seek it out, but otherwise forgettable.

Even mention of the fact that some of it was recorded in “the 14th-century church of Sf. Margareta in Medias, Transylvania” seems curiously inconsequential. This is music that could have been made entirely from samples on a laptop without compromising its impact. In other words, whatever Another does or doesn’t sound like – some will hear traces of aleatory avant-garde jazz from the 1970s, others the stranger parts of Angelo Badalamenti’s scores for David Lynch – it still sounds more like music than meta-music. And that is undoubtedly a good thing.

The album’s fifth track “Not an Ending” is a great example. Slow-moving and spacious, it provides listeners with plenty of time to think. While the song was obviously put together by smart people who know exactly what they are doing, however, it doesn’t scream out to be interpreted. On the contrary, the subtle weaving of electronic and traditional instrumentation and absence of a propulsive rhythm inspires a more intuitive, impressionistic response. A decidedly directional architecture makes it possible for us to hear sounds pass each other, moving through the auditory frame along different vectors without ever colliding. The effect is rather like one of Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract paintings of the 1910s, abstract in a way that underscores the possibility of beauty when we least expect it.

Learning that Another is to some extent a Greek record has the potential to modify the way we perceive it. After all, this centre of Western culture has witnessed some very tough times in recent years, with a significant impact on its art scene. It would make sense for artists who emerge from that context to take a dim view of the austerity measures imposed by the EU and instead look to music as a source of compensatory excess. From this perspective, Magam’s talent for making tracks that feel big without ever being wasteful positions them perfectly.

Even if nothing on this album seems overtly political, its very existence testifies to the desire for a world in which neoliberal efficiency is repudiated by art. It is music to dream by, comfortable with the idea that we should not try to force our minds down any particular path. You can leave it on all day and hear something new on the tenth listen. That’s the mark of a truly great record.

Photograph courtesy of Yannis Porfyropoulos. Published under a Creative Commons license.