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Phill Niblock - Touch Three

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Artist: Phill Niblock

Album: Touch Three

Label: Touch

Review date: Jul. 25, 2006

Phill Niblock’s music is a bit like the ocean, always the same and always changing. On the face of things, not much happens. Eight of Touch Three’s nine pieces were created by taking computer recordings of single tones on an individual instrument, editing out the breathing spaces and initial attacks, which he then assembles into 20-minute-long multi-tracked expanses. The only variation in the material comes from the minimal differences in how a musician plays the same note and some subtle ProTools pitch-shifting. But just like the sea rewards your gaze with endless patterns and variations, the microtones that arise from those tiny differences create fields rich with activity. Tones clash and multiply, creating aural effects analogous to heat lightning and mirages. Or you could think of a color field painting in which the tiny differences between brush strokes and gradual changes in the ambient light enable you to lose yourself in a monolithic block of red or black. Niblock’s music shimmers, flashes and shines. Hear it the way it’s supposed to be heard, played very loudly through many speakers in a space that interacts with the sounds, and it evokes a state of mental calm; play it less loudly on your home stereo and it still strikes a deep emotional chord.

If you acquire a taste for this stuff, it’s hard to get enough, and the septuagenarian composer has obliged his audience with a late-career burst of activity. This triple CD is his sixth since the start of the decade, but also the fourth to be marred by an avoidable production error. Two of the tracks on disc one are reversed; the true running order, according to a note on Niblock’s website, is “Sethwork,” “Lucid Sea,” and “Harm.” That minor annoyance aside, Touch Three is magnificent. “Sethwork” is an excellent introduction to Niblock’s method. He gradually introduces Seth Josel’s e-bowed acoustic guitar notes until they coalesce in a complex chord that sounds more like a church organ rumbling over a quartet of bowed psalteries. Tiny hums and rumbles rise in and out of a surface streaked by rippling whistles and whines. At first, the appearance and disappearance of Lucia Mense’s individual recorder tracks on “Lucid Sea” is easier to mark, but in short order a deep turbine-like swell of overtones starts resonating with your diaphragm. Niblock’s music capitalizes on a trick of physics - sound two notes in close proximity and their interaction creates a third - but there is nothing tricky about the full-body buzz that it produces.

And so the album goes, giving trumpet, strings and saxophones their due. “Sax Mix” ends the album like a big slice of double fudge cake after a rich dinner. Niblock mixed three existing saxophone pieces together, and the effect is like being caught inside one orchestral chord, or maybe sitting underneath massed squadrons of propeller-driven airplanes; the sound’s cumulative density is overwhelming and deliciously too, too much. When can I have some more?

By Bill Meyer

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