Disturbed Earth + Various Artists: Sister Cities

Here’s how it works: five ambient/electronic artists turn over sound sources, all of which must be between nine and twenty-seven seconds long–no more, no less–to a sixth who hangs onto them for up to two years. When he returns them, they’ve been run through a sonic alchemical process, added to, subtracted from, twisted, turned and transmogrified. The result, when the sixth artist is the well-respected sound manipulator Disturbed Earth, is the engaging and often challenging Sister Cities. Mike Radice, Nathan Youngblood, Shane Morris, Magnetic Wind, and Winter Umbrellas (actually a trio–Disturbed Earth, pixyblink, and Russian ambient artist Enseuno) provided the sound-seedlings at Disturbed Earth’s request. Unlike a standard collaboration, there was no back and forth, says Disturbed Earth (aka Dean Richards). There was provision, trust, and metamorphosis. These are long tracks, including a half-hour “jam” that comprises everyone’s contributions, and Richards neatly works his way through several scene changes in each. “Sudan,” with Radice, opens with hints of an appropriately Middle Eastern flair–the high snap of a percussion line tapped out on tabla or clay pot accompanies wisps of flute and smoky sound washes. Later in the track the flute takes prominence and the sharp ding of a chime adds a ritual touch. The track with Nathan Youngblood’s samples rushes in on a fast bass pulse and a hard-struck beat. Richards takes Youngblood’s sitar atmospheres and layers the background with them to smooth out the electrified bounce of the rhythm. Swelling drones crawl across the mix and the whole thing takes on a tight tribal feel. Toward the end Richards reduces it down to the rhythm and a low-end hum. The end snaps off and makes a cool connection into “Swing,” the piece featuring Shane Morris. Here the sound builds off a jazzy sample of a simple vibraphone melody, again backed up with that tabla-esque percussion. After a few minutes the beat falls away and the vibe tones play quietly, turning hypnotically calming. Halfway through, Richards twists the feel, adding a rough edge and cranking the drumming back up to speed. This is one of the more abrupt changes, a sudden wake-up call. “Significance,” working off samples provided by Magnetic Wind, is the second-longest track here, and probably the most abstract. It rarely raises its voice, easing in on a strummed-string warble and in-the-distance vocal pads. As the track progresses, it finds its way into fresh impressionistic places, often with the subtlety of a door being thrown open. It can be superbly disconcerting. Richards hits an experimental stride in the middle of this, with clattering percussive elements, snippets of drawn breath, and sundry sounds waging for headspace.  The Winter Umbrellas track, “Slipping Silently,” kicks in with a bit of a space-tribal feel with big ambient pads over hand drums. This is the least-changing of the offerings here, just a steady and mesmerizing flow, and when it does change, it simply shifts, without much fuss, into a relaxed and airy blend of floating ambient tones. The “jam” track is a lose-yourself drift fully loaded with shadowy tones and morphing textures. This one requires a solid deep listen to take it all in.

I don’t often do track-by-track reviews, but whereas Sister Cities is dependent on the talent of several artists, and because each piece feels truly individual, it’s pretty much required.

Sister Cities may also have one of the more off-kilter points of inspiration you’re likely to run across. Richards says he took his cue from  Mr. Squiggle, a famous Australian kids’ show. On the show, a puppet with a pencil for a nose would be given a piece of paper that had just a few rudimentary shapes on it–a circle, a line or two. Then, by adding this and that, and often by turning the paper upside down, a new drawing would slowly emerge. So here we have Richards as an ambient Mr. Squiggle, and those initial lines and circles are the samples he was given. His intent, he says, was to then turn them upside down, come at them from another perspective, and see what would come of it.

Some folks might be put off by the odd range of approaches represented here. While Sister Cities has something of a flow to it, the switches can feel sudden. Taken as solitary tracks, however, each piece here shines with its own light. It’s challenging, but it’s intriguing, and it shows what an artisan like Richards can do given material and time.

Available at Band Camp.

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