A lot of music seems to be popping up lately from artists who are, like everyone else, homebound for the foreseeable future. Owing to the cabin-feverish nature of its origin, much of the work feels half-baked to me, like lo-fi sketches toward something rather than work lived with and seen all the way through.
An exciting exception is Music for Three Cymbals, the latest EP from Calum Lee, aka Paleman. Lee has said up front that the EP wasn’t intended for release, that it was more the end result of constraining himself to the use of “two microphones, three cymbals, some mallets and delay and reverb.” While that might be the case, what he’s come up with has the heft and impact of a solid, finished piece.
It opens appropriately enough with “Cymbals 1,” an exploratory mission into a resonant, cavernous space marbled with ghostly calls from seemingly unidentifiable sources. A steady almost subliminal rhythm played with mallets establishes and sustains tension. The track builds and insinuates, yet there’s no final encounter. When it ends, it’s as if a limit has been reached, and you’re left helpless at the edge of an unlit abyss, staring into a void with the unsettling sensation of something unseen staring back at you. Chilling stuff, and not to be listened to alone in the dark.
With the exception of a few minor crescendos and flourishes, “Cymbals 2” has a cyclical, meditative fixity to it that conjures up ideas of private rituals. Lee starts out hitting his cymbals gently enough to produce a metallic ring that’s matched in volume by the sound of his sticks hitting his cymbals, and he maintains that long enough to stretch a listener’s notions of time (in the best psychedelic sense.) While there’s a reverberant suggestion of dub in play here, this track mostly – and favorably – puts me in mind of Moritz Von Oswald’s Vertical Ascent from 2009. Lee’s sensitivity to timing and structure, fortified no doubt by his background in jazz, and extended by his prolific output as a purveyor of techno and house tracks, keeps everything moving forward, both quickly and slowly, without anything ever becoming dull.
The entirety of “Cymbals 3” is built on a low throbbing tone that sounds as if it was created by Lee playing a cymbal like a singing bowl. Once that tone is established, a muffled, persistent drumming sound emerges, a cycled measure of six beats, soon paired with a metal-against-metal rhythmic scrape. Once those sync up, bright, individual metallic strikes cut in, hollow-sounding and windswept, like an aluminum flag pole being struck by its swinging counterweight. Lee further thickens all of these rhythms by running them through a delay. Everything builds to a head and then he pulls it all back to just the original throb and a scattering of receding delayed strikes before the track fades. It’s a moody, mysterious thing and a highlight of the album.
The closing track offers an unsettling pilgrimage into a different though no less ominous zone than the first track. The evocative, rumbling Lustmord-esque sounds Lee extracts from his limited gear suggest to me someone who has devoted plenty of time to exploring the sonic potential of his equipment. “Cymbals 4” is deep space music –oceanic and celestial at once. Lee keeps these realms alive with massive metallic gouges and trumpeting solar flares. And there’s nothing in this 11-minute track that I can point to as any sort of obvious percussive sound. It transports and transfixes me every time I listen to it. In fact, the whole EP does.