Exploring the Strange, Otherworldly Sounds of Oklahoma’s Unknown Tone Records (Review)
One of my favorite ways to discover new music is to browse Bandcamp’s always-growing library, beginning with their “Discover” feature. Recently, this sent me down a particularly intriguing rabbit trail that led to Oklahoma’s Unknown Tone Records.
Founded in 2011 by Mark and Lindsey Kuykendall, Unknown Tone Records describes itself as a “Midwest label exploring the surreal — avant-garde blended with film noir, as expansive and isolating as the Oklahoma prairie.” (Being a Midwesterner myself, any mention of the prairie is bound to pique my curiosity.)
The label’s aesthetic — surreal, haunting, and often lo-fi — brings to mind the estimable Ghost Box label. While not as consistently hauntological as Ghost Box, Unknown Tone’s releases take a similar approach by using what could be fairly straightforward and mundane sound sources and influences, and subtly twisting them into something more surreal and interesting.
A perfect example of this is the first Unknown Tone release I listened to: Lonesome Goldmine by Tulsa-based jazz singer Annie Ellicott. You could use “jazzy” to describe Ellicott’s discursive, meandering songs, as well as terms like “folksy” and “Americana”; aspects of those genres do pop up here and there but they don’t come anywhere close to capturing the oddness at work in her music.
Ellicott’s off-kilter sing-song vocals (which remind me of the late, great Lucid, always a good thing), the mix of conventional and unconventional music and sonic elements, the impressionistic lyrics (“And as my holiest of truths dissolve before me/May I be there by my side, eyes open wide/Till at last my heart and hands come untied”) — all of these facets combine to create music that seems whimsical and flighty at first. However, there’s an underlying strangeness at work in the album’s eight songs that proves quite beguiling in its own right.
Label founder Mark Kuykendall himself has recorded nearly a dozen Unknown Tone titles as The New Honey Shade. One of his most recent titles, Sightless Seasons, is essentially two sets of recordings. The first set consists of short pieces composed on music boxes for an art exhibit; the second set consists of longer, more ambient extended mixes of the first set’s material that draw legitimate comparisons to Tujiko Noriko’s experiments.
Slender Threads Soon Disappearing (2012) is described as “tape-loops at the graveyard,” and there’s certainly something spectral and otherworldly about Kuykendall’s soundscapes, particularly on the murky “III” and “VI.” Though not as dark as Slender Threads Soon Disappearing, For Linda (2016) continues along a similar path; “Monarchs in the Milkweed” encapsulates that mundane-yet-surreal sound while “Hermits Rest” is a languid synthesizer piece that brings to mind Emeralds and even Oneohtrix Point Never at their most sanguine.
Unknown Tone Records isn’t simply “stuck” releasing strange sounds from the American Midwest, though. Cétieu (aka Tekla Mrozowicka) hails from Warsaw, and her Movements (2015) is a definite label highlight. While drawing deeply from the lo-fi tape loop aesthetic utilized on many Unknown Tone releases, Movements boasts moments of sublime beauty that truly stand out amidst the label’s offerings.
Case in point: the echoing piano notes on “Movements of Air” and “Velour Lashes” evoke the same exquisite, otherworldly stillness and sense of reverie one usually associates with Harold Budd. Meanwhile, the simultaneously fascinating and frustrating “Circulation of Blood” is reminiscent of lovesliescrushing’s overwhelming, disconcerting soundscapes.
Collaborating under the “Le Moors” moniker, Wil Bolton and Jeff Stonehouse (Listening Mirror, Snoqualmie Falls) released Tendrils earlier this year. The album consists of seven long, shambling ambient/drone pieces. Album opener “Where a River Sings” is particularly gorgeous, with atmospherics that slowly unfurl like early morning fog along the waterline. “Precarious Brilliance” is all Windy and Carl-ish guitar drones and shimmery synths while the following track, “Meadowsweet,” takes its predecessor’s drones and recasts them in darker, more nocturnal shades.
Tendrils ends on a foreboding note with its title track: sparse piano notes stand in stark, shivering contrast to a backdrop of ominous atmospherics. It’d be perfect soundtrack material for a horror movie sequence in which the protagonists wait in dread anticipation for the arrival of something sinister and alien.
Though it’s only been around for five years, Unknown Tone Records has been a particularly productive label, with over forty albums, compilations, and EPs to its name. Though I’ve barely scratched the label’s surface here, what I’ve found particularly admirable is how well the label has embraced its aesthetic vision. This doesn’t mean there’s no sonic variety between Unknown Tone releases — compare Annie Ellicott’s aforementioned Lonesome Goldmine to, say, Danny Clay’s Gameboy-based Glacier Park — but rather, that a similar spirit pervades them all (in my experience, anyway).
It’s a spirit that prefers the odd to the usual, the experimental to the expected — but not necessarily in a confrontational manner. Unknown Tone’s artists aren’t necessarily trying to blow your mind with their sonic experiments so much as (maybe) slightly skew and tweak your perception of reality. Make no mistake, there’s some very weird music to be found here, but that same music is frequently beautiful and intriguing as well.