Memory Drawings – The Nearest Exit

There’s not enough hammered dulcimer records these days!

Joel Hanson’s hammerings on this record are very mechanical – that’s a complement because so far, the record is looping away as tight as a music box. You could be forgiven thinking it was automated.

Simple clockwork symphonies, organic and a little Eastern European – accrue and form more than the sum of their parts over eleven tracks. In doing so it highlights the surprising lack of hammered dulcimer in popular contemporary ambient/classical music (note to self: dig out my Laraaji re-releases and the Eno collaboration Day of Radiance).

For me, the dulcimer produces a kind of ‘automatic espionage’ response between my ears when I hear it roll and trill. And The Nearest Exit is definitely cinema for the ears. Whilst this record doesn’t quite sound as if it belongs in a 1960s TV thriller, part of me yearns to watch the drama that could unfold, should it soundtrack one.

The Nearest Exit grows richer and more expansive as it progresses, the side two experience being more ‘band-like’ than side one, with a little more individual exposure for Richard Adam’s basslines and Sarah Kemp’s violin glissandos. Some reviewers have hinted towards a post-rock production. I don’t hear that overtly.

Occasionally Garath Brown’s piano makes a stark appearance – and in fact the record opens this way and when these keys appear towards the end of the record, it could be mistaken for a Nils Frahm moment from the soundtrack of the Berlin thriller Victoria, or when Jon Hopkins arrests his beats.

Stand out track is number eight; There is a Last Time for Everything – the most complete realisation of how the whole band coalesce to soften the clockwork feel of the earlier record, which begins small and slowly expands to this point.

If the record has one characteristic in the first half, it’s that the cyclic arrangements hold back the flourishing playing a little, but restraint is no bad thing. This is something I had a little problem with on Alexander Balanescu’s Kraftwerk covers album Possessed, in that cyclic arrangements don’t suit everything. But what The Nearest Exist does do, is set out a stall, and keep it pure and measured throught all of the movements.

As a matter of fact, the arrangements are so tight, and the music so well produced, I actually doubted on the first listen whether this was an actual band and not a solo composer sat in front of a workstation. I know the work is produced by members of Hood, Movietone, Brave Fingers so I guess it’s not all live takes and one-off recordings, not that it matters how it is assembled. A little filmic reverb is there, but it is minimal, presenting the works as match-fit for film soundtracks or to simulate an ideal live presentation of the ideas.

But the story doesn’t end there, there’s a superb remix package thrown in. The Humble Orchestra present a warm bath of fuzzy distortion, Isnaj Dui layers multiple shrill violin calls over some of the notable dulcimer motifs, Yvonne Bruner provides sweet vocals over Subtle Transformation, as do The Astronauts in a really superb re-imagining of The Nearest Exit track. Next, Robert Rich steers us closely to a Penguin Café Orchestra ordinance in a slightly psychedelic mood and the Manyfingers remix of Your Own Worst Enemy is probably the darkest moment on the record but still measured and taut.

The Leaf Library’s contribution doesn’t hide a loop-based approach and reminded me of a Susumu Yakota track until some pretty impressive orchestration blows that notion away for more Third Eye Foundation influences. The last couple of remixes then; Ka-Spel go for a bowed saw approach with what sounds like Italian spoken word under a suite of pulses and swells – ideal natural history filmmaking territory – and the closing remix from members of The Declining Winter ramps up the cinematica to blissful levels.

This is a great couple of well-produced discs (vinyl editions 2xCD and downloads) that provides an immersive feature-length listening experience that could also be suites from a feature! Lets hope there’s more to come from this excellent combination of performers, composers and collaborators.