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Giuseppe Ielasi / Bellows - Untitled, 2011 / Reelin’

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Artist: Giuseppe Ielasi / Bellows

Album: Untitled, 2011 / Reelin’

Label: Entr’acte

Review date: May. 7, 2012

Giuseppe Ielasi used to be known as an experimental guitarist. If that statement were ever even true, it is surely false now. Over the last decade plus of work, starting with Plans in 2003, Ielasi has made a string of beguiling, unclassifiable solo albums that have very little to do with the guitar and even less to do with improvising, two approaches he’s often associated with. While the guitar does figure on some of his recordings (such as his two releases on Häpna), on his most recent work it’s barely present at all. His Stunt series focuses exclusively on combining pulse and micro-sampling for a raw, live feel, while on his 15 Tapes series he investigates the textural and rhythmic possibilities of reel-to-reel tape recorders.

These two records, both on the U.K. label Entr’acte, continue those lines of study. Untitled, 2011 is a solo outing that feels like an extension of the Stunt pieces, as pulse and samples are again at the fore, but now the sound is more diffuse, less about rhythmic push-and-pull and more about hypnosis and gradual unraveling of reference points. Loops with long periods overlap, intersect and then separate. There’s plenty of air between the notes, leaving room for both slow and quick pacing, and space for Ielasi to introduce a huge variety of near-inscrutable sources: field captures, voices, slurred horns, screwed and chopped strings, metallic percussion, all thickened by mounds of tape hiss and other ambient noises.

Reelin’ is a fresh iteration of his Bellows duo with Nicola Ratti, and it features the two using reel-to-reel recorders as their primary instrument, along with assorted other consumer playback devices (a CDJ and walkman) and analog delay. The result is often like dub stripped of the reggae foundation, the instrumental identity removed to leave only the aura and gestures of a music you thought you recognized. Curt phrases of bright, bleeping tones bounce not only right and left in the stereo channels, but also background and foreground, looping and repeating until you’re not sure which came first.

These might sound like formalist experiments, pieces that highlight process over content, but it’s the contrary that’s true. In differing ways, they force you to concentrate and deal with the sonic images in front of you. Really, who knows what a reel-to-reel recorder should “sound like”? Aside from some vague associations with analog technology, the devices are somewhat obscure, known more for playback than being played. It’s easy to see the attraction for Ielasi and Ratti (as well as listeners): the less historical burden, the better. We hear the asymmetrical pulses and echoing soundscapes as something fresh. It feels light, but still has weight.

On Untitled, 2011 Ielasi focuses listening by, somewhat perversely, distracting you from the sounds. In the brief sleeve notes, he recommends a moderate playback volume, which only makes his collage of altered sounds all the more puzzling. It’s as if by pushing the sounds toward the periphery of perception and then muting their presence, he’s heightening our awareness. We hear more by hearing less. All the bits of scrabbling percussion, swirling concrète samples (Medical devices? Supermarket check-out readers? Something more mundane?) and chiming, bell-like tones emerge separately and equally. Nothing is background and everything is.

The secret to what Ielasi and Bellows do is simple, and not so different from what a great songwriter or beatmaker might do: locate the essential elements of a melody, beat or sound, then gradually repeat and build those back up to something more complex and substantial. These days, a label like “experimental” indicates limits more than it does openness. Instead, call these albums for what they are: strange, compulsive music of a high order.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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