The Novelist hints so much at what songwriting whiz kid Richard Swift can create with electronics: namely, the polar opposite of what early electronic artists propagated (cold, mechanized staleness). Instead, the blippy flickerings adorning that album resonated with something warm and organic, yet they were still distant enough for us to question just exactly what period Mr. Swift’s living in (a down-on-his-luck ‘20s writer frequenting vaudeville halls or a current day knob-twiddler hunched over a mixing board in a small, New York club).
Regardless of chronological or geographical location, Instruments of Science and Technology, the electronic outing of Swift, is a fascinating extension of his musical talent, one that grants some insight into what informs or decorates his songwriting, but not necessarily presents a realized whole.
I suppose it’d make sense to start from the beginning and work my way down and tell you that “Ashes” is a crackling drone that doesn’t really set us up for the synth-heavy flat-four beat of “Inst” that samples a Smithsonian Folkways album entitled The Relaxation Record. However, I’m geeking out more to the fact that Richard Swift’s paying major homage to the seminal production of Joe Meek, specifically his pet project, I Hear A New World as performed by The Blue Men.
The tracks “Theme 5,” “Theme 3,” and “Theme 4” are most indebted to Meek’s eccentric ear for how the future sounds: bubbly, space-age processors and synths condensed within an inch of their lives whirring up into outer space intercepted by some high-pitched alien being. Folks may compare Meek’s odd wall of sound to Phil Spector, but he existed in an entirely different realm dreaming up effects most musicians still unknowingly emulate. Swift has the good sense to forgo the silly, extraterrestrial voices announcing the “March of the Dribcots” over a snare singing “dooby dooby doo,” though I half expected it on “Theme 4.”
Instruments… makes its rounds stylistically and occasionally disrupts the album’s flow. The texturally blissful “Plan A & Plan B” drones as if recorded in a back alley while a rainfall heightens a nearly pulsing, yet pleasurable, feedback. But when the harsh, bubbly “Theme 5” tramples in right afterward, I lose my sense of pace. And really, being an album-oriented music nerd, that’s my only complaint with Instruments…, since both of Swift’s other releases (collected on The Richard Swift Collection Volume One) suggest the same cohesive vision.
But I can’t help but be fascinated by his experimentation turned into full-fledged ambient electronic work inspired not only in great part by Brian Eno’s Ambient series but also by atmospheric hip-hop [see “Shooting A Rhino Between The Shoulders” and “Ghost of Hip Hop (New Apostles Mix)”], heavily echoing or channel-panning the drum beat and droning an organ above it. The jarring “Clay Young Battles The Man” is, for all intents and purposes, a pulsing Bauhaus track, relentless and brash, conjuring a post-punk spirit I’d never imagine since Joy Electric’s punk Robot Rock, which was more of a statement on aesthetic than anything else.
As strange as it is to say, Instruments… is a singles album. Ambient artists have the almost universal tendency to make their recordings come off as one long, ethereal track. Swift, however, jots down exciting ideas and leaves them as they are — not wholly complete and generally unattached from other works, yet genuinely stimulating in their singularity.
Written by Lars Gotrich.