Unconfirmed Reports: the expression triggers a sense of trepidation –
it’s always immediately followed by tidings of death, destruction or disaster.
What better title, then, for an album oozing dread like there’s no tomorrow,
literally. Akatombo’s widescreen, industrial-strength soundscapes aren’t so
much musique concrète as music for and about concrete: Unconfirmed
Reports is the sound of the dystopian metropolis, with tension, menace,
paranoia and claustrophobia looming large. Indeed, it’s no small irony that
Akatombo (ex-pat Scottish artist Paul Thomsen Kirk) resides in Hiroshima, a city once destroyed by technology
at its worst.
Trace Elements, Akatombo’s 2003 debut, was dark and weighty, but
compared with this long-overdue follow-up, it might as well have been in
Technicolor. (Between albums, Kirk survived a bout of meningitis only to be the
victim of a hit-and-run accident, so perhaps it’s inevitable that the mood here
isn’t exactly bright and cheery.) The approach is a similar one —
dub-flavored, hypnotic beat- and loop-centric electronics interspersed with
sparse organic instrumentation — but Unconfirmed Reports feels starker
and more monolithic. In fact, it’s almost Brutalist in terms of the
architectural feel of its hard, bold surfaces and its uniform, repeating
structures. Kirk digs bass-heavy, deep foundations, some tracks calling to mind
vintage On-U fare, albeit anchored down with Jah Wobble-sized heft. However,
while favoring gargantuan sonic building blocks among his raw materials, he
balances them with minimalist detail that intensifies his aural environment’s
unsettling edge: evoking the city’s persistent, omnipresent audio detritus,
metallic white noise, drones and rumbling or humming layers drift throughout.
A lot of the work’s tension stems from these seemingly peripheral elements that
nag away at the consciousness; never fully declaring their presence or assuming
a recognizable form, they exist in a state of perpetual threat, ratcheting up
the foreboding. Sampled voices are crucial to this equation. Rather than drop
in snippets of speech as punctuation, allowing them to stand as discrete linguistic
entities, Kirk has them function as barely decipherable textures. In places,
they’re absent-presences, disembodied components in the greater machinery of
the urban audioscape; elsewhere, these human traces are subsumed into the
compositions and rendered almost subliminal.
Although it vividly conjures up the dehumanizing homogeneity of the
metropolitan space, this material is surprisingly heterogeneous. Some of the
strongest tracks embody that diversity: for instance, the dub behemoth,
“Friend for Hire,” which trundles forward implacably (its title alone
suggesting an alienated human presence: relationships of affect supplanted by
economic relations); the austere standout, “Cypher,” assembles an
expansive, Cluster-esque drone-environment; and there’s even a pop moment
(well, relatively speaking) on “SSRI,” where chunky beats, ominous
bass and spectral tremolo guitar conspire to recall early Portishead.
Unconfirmed Reports is especially appealing for Kirk’s refusal to settle
into a genre. It traverses myriad stylistic spaces, from ambient to post-rock,
with hip hop, dubstep, funk and industrial inflections, but the result is much
more than the sum of its parts. Much like the city, Kirk’s object of abject
fascination, this music is always in transition, shifting kaleidoscopically.
Above all, it’s a memorable exercise in uneasy listening, capturing the
unmistakable ambience of urban disquiet.
Standout Tracks: “Friend for Hire,” “Cypher,”
“SSRI,” “Portable Pariah” WILSON NEATE