Click here to [close]

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Al Fraser, Sam Leamy, Neil Johnstone – Panthalassa (Rattle, 2019) ***½

By Nick Ostrum

To understand this album, one must understand its setting. Panthalassa is the ocean that surrounded the ancient supercontinent Pangea. It was immense, deep, and, with the onset of the Cambrian explosion for which the Paleozic Age is best known, rich with life.

Panthalassa starts as a soundscape shimmering, but desolate soundscape. A panoramic of haunting Lost-in-Space hums flutters in a desolate wind. An inconsistent ring seems to keep time as wooden creaks and scrapes drag the first track, “Paleozoic Dawn,” to its ends. The second track, “Bone White Moon,” then redeploys the soundscape to a dreamy backdrop over which Fraser lays his clarion nga taonga puoro – his assortment of Maorian wind instruments. This track has a pulse to it that the more skeletal, almost lifeless “Paleozoic Dawn” can only hint at. “Rorqual” returns to the welling atmospherics, but, again, in a more compelling manner than the first track. It is richer and glistens with activity and distinctively human sounds. Tracks such as the growling “Echolocation,” the eerily pacific, guitar-laden “Glacial Imprints,” spectral vocal-track “Hinatore,” and the funereal “Whale Time” do so as well, in their own distinctive ways. And this is quite fitting. The album is a journey from the abandoned and sterile to the increasingly organic and anachronistically anthropocentric world of wafting melodies and energy agglomeration and release. The crescendo is unsteady. Instead, the album rocks between absence and intervention, as if the more conventional, acoustic instruments (those focused on melody and those most deeply connected to the history of music) are fighting to break through the electronic haze. Then, with the “Mesozoic Extinction,” the life of the album comes to an end in a bittersweet return to the near-barrenness of the inorganic sonic-world that preexisted it. The extinction is catastrophic, though the song reflects the graduality of the dying-out, rather than the sudden rupture of a cataclysm. The soundscape fades and the hollow pattering from the background, almost rhythmic, carry the track to its final, silent end.

Reflecting the presumably strange diversity of the Paleozoic stew of life, Panthalassa is an odd concoction that comes into its own when the abstract synthesized ambience combines with the instrumentation, at times Maorian horns and other tools, at others bass, guitars, ocean harp, and vocals. It is these instances that this album rises about the more conventional morass of sonic landscaping, the pre-organic dawn and the ultimate extinction, and lets a glimmer of life shine through. This is an album that captivates in its contemplative subtleties rather than aggression or sheer novelty. And, indeed, if you have the attention to pay it and the open ears to hear it, it is well worth the close listen.