Altered Realities by Erdem Helvacıoğlu (Review)

The disc has a highly improvised feel to it, based entirely around the live electronic manipulation of Helvacıoğlu’s acoustic guitar.
Altered Realities - Erdem Helvacioglu

According to my MP3 player, Altered Realities — the latest from Turkish guitarist Erdem Helvacıoğlu — ought to be filed under “Jazz.” Which might throw some folks for a loop, since there’s nary a trumpet or sax to be found in the album’s seven tracks and fifty-three minutes. However, the disc does have a highly improvised feel to it, based entirely around the live electronic manipulation of Helvacıoğlu’s acoustic guitar.

The result is a shimmering, hazy collection of songs not unlike something one might find in the discographies of Christian Fennesz and Off The Sky’s Jason Corder (with maybe some hints of Tujiko Noriko’s electronic collages thrown in for good measure). There are moments where the manipulation renders the music into incredibly abstract forms, the tones from Helvacıoğlu’s Ovation getting split and shattered like light through a kaleidoscope.

The resulting sounds are less guitar-like than you might imagine, instead resembling the random radio noise you might pick up on your AM radio around four in the morning. This is highly effective on the darker, more foreboding tracks, like “Dreaming on a Blind Saddle,” where the constantly shifting guitar atmospherics conjure up strange, alien vistas and remote sights.

However, that’s not to say the music ever becomes harsh or unlistenable, concerns that might arise due to the music’s experimental, unpredictable nature. Even on its most abstract and surreal tracks, such as “Sliding On A Glacier,” in which the guitar notes collide off each other like clusters of subatomic particles, each impact setting off a multitude of chain reactions, there are still moments where the abstruse clouds of sound clear and a gorgeous melodic strain or cluster of tonal patterns suddenly appears.

Still, the album’s strongest moments are when the electronic manipulation isn’t as prevalent, and instead adds subtle textures and details to the guitar notes.

“Frozen Resophonic” has an almost playful, lullabye-ish tone to it, thanks to Helvacıoğlu’s deft playing, which isn’t lost in the electronic haze. Other sounds rise up and roil about in the background, as if the software is picking up on the cast-off sounds of Helvacıoğlu’s guitar — fret buzzes and scrapes, harmonics, fragments of reverb — and having its own way with them. However, these pulsing, shivering sounds never overwhelm the song’s core, but only add additional layers of color and depth.

“Shadow My Dovetail” builds up around a sad, nostalgic melody that has an almost folk-like quality to it. However, Helvacıoğlu’s software quickly renders a shifting, intangible mass of sounds that, rather than obscure the emotional weight of the central melody, actually adds to the feelings of ephmerality and intangibility that it conjures up. Like fleeting memories that never stay in one place long enough for you to get around them, the processed sounds continually resist clear interpretation, but instead just hover out there around the song’s periphery, remaining as beautiful as they are remote.

As with much of Altered Realities, here the improvisation — and the chaos and deconstruction that it introduces into the music — allows Helvacıoğlu’s music to take on a life of its own, and allows it to explore sonic and emotional territories that wouldn’t even exist in a more controlled and structured process.

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