By Nick Ostrum
For a few days a couple of times a year, I get pulled back into the soundworld of Lance Austin Olsen and listen to him intensively, when I am working, when I am reading, when I am just bumbling around. This two-part review is the result of one of those recent dives and covers much of his work since 2020.
Lance Austin Olsen - Fukushima Rising (Infrequency Arts, 2022)
Since the last time I wrote about his work, Olsen has released a mess of albums. All fall somewhere into the electoacoustic montaging that he has been exploring for decades. Their feeling, however, vary from the light and colloquial to the absurd to the suggestively menacing. Fukushima Rising, a sound-art accompaniment to a gallery installation he co-designed with Jeremy Borsos inspired by the 2011 catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, is an example of that latter. The album begins more musically than I expected, with a repeating pair of tones overlain by clicks suggesting some new music gradualism. As the piece unfolds, these hints shift to the background as the sound-snippets take over. By the end, the ghostly and musical elements combine in a cloud of writhing murmurs, ringing tones and those same stubborn clicks from the beginning. Together, they evoke a seeping nuclear catastrophe rather than the tsunami that caused it. This is not about shock and rupture but about the meticulous development of a sonic mood.
Lance Austin Olsen - The Telling (Infrequency Arts, 2022 (2015))
Fukushima Rising is an interesting juxtaposition to The Telling, a rerelease from 2015 recently remastered by long-time collaborator Jamie Drouin. (Drouin actually mastered most of the releases reviewed here.) This one is unique among the batch as it sounds more like a physical, almost real-time performance (toy accordion, trainer guitar, voice, amplified objects), albeit captured and fractured on computer. The Telling begins with a deep, rhythmic crackle of various objects. After several minutes, the sounds disappear, and Olsen reemerges from that vacuum with a slowly rising drone, which is gradually peppered with other sounds that refract the pulsing undertones of the drone. What is most striking here are the voices, which have become more prominent in Olsen’s work over the last few years. Or, they are at least more catching my attention more in this period of alienation. The Telling gets quite dark at the end with an ominous staticky voice conveying some mysterious and inscrutable message from another time, place, or dimension until it abruptly cuts to silence. Then, a ringing of bells and a calm child’s voice. Whatever foreboding that had existed before seems to have been a fantasy, or at least has been restrained for the time being.
Lance Austin Olsen – Polishing the Mirrors of Psychosis (Infrequency Arts, 2022)
Much like The Telling, the next release, Polishing the Mirrors of Psychosis, is disjointed, noir and quizzical affair. The ambience is engaging enough. However, the narrative fragments really stick out on this one. Take the line about ten minutes into the title track: “Life is a thought, or slice of bread, or cat’s meow, or poem, or Diane Wakowski.” Is this dada or stream of consciousness, absurdist or zen? The second piece, They Did Something with the Margarine, consists of persistent church bells and tapestry of found and electronic sounds, capped by a conversation about infant mortality, old age, malnutrition, medical progress, and margarine. Covid is never mentioned by name, but the very alignment of this conversation – people meeting in person discussing such matters – and our current age invites comparison that makes our exceptional time seem, for better or for worse, less exceptional. Simple and steady but also koanically provocative, as Olsen’s creations tend to be.
Lance Austin Olsen - Sure is a Good Hamburger (Modern Concern, 2022)
Sure is a Good Hamburger is another curious solo release that consists of a single track. It begins with sparse, irregular metallic twang soon coupled with beeps and an array of muted noises. Then comes the hum, both in drones and flutters. Then, the extended rings and some minimalist guitar work. This sounds more of objects and manipulated soundscaping than many of Olsen’s other releases, which bear clearer marks of found sounds and field recordings. ( The Telling is a notable exception.) Around the seven-minute mark, however, it turns to a deeply textured crackling and voice recordings that display the hallmarks of Olsen’s recent work. As always, Sure is is mysterious and unnerving, but the lack of linear narrative and the entanglement of elements (more objects and guitar than computer sounds, it seems) prevent the listener from identifying what, exactly, produces that discomfiture. Is it the sequence of sounds, or the uncertainty of their origin? Is it the crypticism of the piece, an implied narrative (the snippets of conversations come from Olsen and visual artists Luis Ituarte and Roberto Romero-Molina, so there must be some intention in the recordings themselves), or the unfulfilled desire to unlock the riddle? Is it the haziness and the grind (this gets somewhat heavy for Olsen a quarter of the way in and radio-fuzz signal drone toward the end) interrupted by silence and softer tones? Whatever it is, Sure is a Good Hamburger is dark but not overwhelmingly so. There is something in the voices that cuts that uneasy and lonely alienation and something in the rich crumbling tones that offer relief from the gloam.