KMRU – Giant Steps

Back in 2020, the unofficial year of Covid, I first heard Nairobi-born, now Berlin-based musician Joseph Kamaru’s aka KMRU’s album, Peel (released on Editions Mego.)

Peel is stunning, epic in scope and emotional impact. Each track on it is rich and complex with presence, but my favorites include the majestic slowburn of “Why Are You Here,” the somber, haunted, high plains atmosphere of “Solace,” the densely layered, crisply textured, sinister mysteries of “Klang,” and the steady ascent of “Peel,” which begins in darkness and accrues glittering, shimmering detail as it reaches its radiant peak. Much of what makes this music uniquely powerful and affecting is Kamaru’s absolute mastery of pacing, in allowing tracks to determine their own shape while layering sounds and textures around them so that what’s there seems to develop and transform in an almost sculptural dimension.

I mention Covid not because it’s all behind us or anyone has forgotten what it is. But 2020, when it first took root, was also the year of self-quarantining and lockdowns, and most of the music of Kamaru’s that I’m looking at was released in that year. If someone in the future were to wonder if anything good came out of all that isolation, I’d have to point them in this direction.

Continual”, a release from 2020 mastered by Simon Scott (whom I’ve written about here) presents a dialectical approach to sound and narrative.

The title track plunges the listener in a welter of bass rumble, distorted plinking sounds, and searching pads. Keening strings soon drift in, accompanied by the odd, scratching burlap patch of noise. With its parts assembled, the piece hovers in place, permanently on the verge of cohering yet ultimately unable to. It’s a restless, homeless thing, and unexpectedly beautiful. The second track, “Contrasts,” is almost over before it’s begun. Shot through with static, the track rolls in quietly like a fog, almost unnoticeable, staying close to the ground. The static transforms to a sound of sifting sand, a clap of thunder is heard in the distance, and you find yourself lost in the dunes, cutting through beach grass with a storm closing in behind you. A sudden, insistent, off-kilter rhythm drives you away.

Released as part of 2020’s celebration of Drone Day, the “Saal” EP presents two tracks, equal in length and equally matched in sustained intensity.

That cover image of electrical lines found at tram stations says it all. This music buzzes and hums with physicality, while at the same time creating a kind of steady-state serenity. Not to suggest that there’s anything static about these pieces.

“Saal” starts as a slow-throbbing cycle of cavernous bass that gradually acquires an overlay of pure electrical fizz of a subliminal nature, something, say, like the hidden sound of overhead telephone wires. About halfway through, a single tone drops in and repeats, not unlike a gentle warning from a meter that a peak has been reached. The track gradually fades under increasing static and heavy rumbling, as if the power expended to create and sustain the thick chord of itself has finally pitched into the red.

Where “Saal” conjures up a world of power and control (without being in any way oppressive), “Haal” presents something more passive, more along the lines of potential as opposed to kinetic energy, while suggesting a vast, untapped reserve. A low unbroken drone is sustained throughout the entire track, while something long and snaky arrives, twisting and rubbing itself in passing along the underside of it, nearly breaking through the surface. From this friction a thin, shifting, bending tone emerges, like the flaring whine of a circular saw, but it gets absorbed back into the gravitational force field generated by the drone until the piece folds in on itself and retreats to silence. KMRU’s catalog is filled with gems, but this EP is exceptional.

Moving in a different direction, we come to Jar, released in 2020 on the Seil label out of Frankfurt.

In keeping with Seil’s stated attempt “to make the world a more optimistic place,” the overall mood of Jar feels more placid in comparison to the other releases. In addition, the track lengths are shorter, and in terms of production, there’s a stripped-down simplicity – everything’s constructed from pads, keys, and found sounds – that somehow feels singular for KMRU’s body of work. He’s still expertly layering his elements in these tracks but they stand out with greater distinction, like parts of a mobile as opposed to ingredients seamlessly blended into a singular work. “Life at ouri,” “ulmma,” “note 43,” and “behind there” are all dreamy moods captured, vibrant with colors and textures and pockets of mystery and – with the inclusion of found sounds – a grounded sense of place and immediacy. Still, Jar feels more to me like a series of sketches and experiments with temporal and material constraints than Kamaru’s other work. But perhaps you should go and listen for yourself.

Rounding out 2020 is another EP, “ftpim.” Not unlike “Saal”and“Continual,” “ftpim” is two tracks, nearly equal in length yet opposite in feeling and impact.

The opener, “figures emerge,” pours out a steady feed of clicks and pops and ticks, a dispersion of metallic insects that hover over a placid river of drifting tones. Progress isn’t the motive here. It’s a musical tableau and a tranquil one at that. The flipside, however, “from the people i met,” is not dissimilar in terms of sonic elements, but the mood certainly is. This is a journey through darkness, surrounded by unseen beings, that somehow manages to reach a culmination, a kind of ultimate state of awareness, at which point Kamaru introduces a slow, steady rhythmic panting sound, as if we were suddenly right next to the creature we’d been seeking as much as dreading. “ftpim” is a powerful, eerie work, and this EP is deeply satisfying.

What’s amazing to me is that I’ve only selected what I consider to be KMRU’s best work from 2020. There are a number of other pieces that came out that same year that are worth investigating. Kind of astonishing to consider.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take things up to the present.

Aside from a fantastic EP, “there was nothing in between,” released in February of 2022 …

… and a lovely, twenty-minute–plus single, “Imperceptible Perceptible,” for Longform Editions (a label I’ve written about here) …

… KMRU also released Temporary Stored.

Drawn in part from the sound archives of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, located in Tervuren, Belgium, Temporary Stored exposes and interrogates the persistent colonialist mentality of the museum acquisition process – its insensitivity and indifference to the actual meaning and function of objects taken – while reclaiming and re-contextualizing the art, or, in this case, audio recordings. To achieve this, Kamaru has “raided” the archives, taking back recordings of interviews, songs of weddings, songs of war, and songs of praise, and incorporating them into wholly new tracks. While the five shorter tracks and one long track of Temporary Stored are of a stylistic piece with Kamaru’s larger body of work, they also represent a different approach in terms of their direct reckoning with a charged sociopolitical subject as well as the use of previously recorded sound samples. The masterful layering of field recordings with subtle musical motifs that fade in and out and the recurrence of revived audio samples all imbue the album with an impressive balance of gravitas, grace, and beauty. There are no standout tracks here; Temporary Stored is a significant and profound statement and a beautiful piece of music from beginning to end.

Simon Scott: Harvesting Sounds

At this point, eight years down the road from the initial release of Simon Scott’s 12k debut, Below Sea Level, it’s ritual that when the first hot days of summer arrive, when the early mornings are submerged in a bit of haze and it’s quiet enough outside my city windows to eliminate distraction or worry, I play the album and luxuriate in the shimmering bliss of it. I know the critics’ favorite word luminous gets pasted over every last person, place, or thing as if they all were emanating some kind of holy spiritual glow, metaphorically speaking at least, but I think this music is actually deserving of it.

Below Sea Level was recorded in part at the Fens, a vast area in England covering nearly 750,000 acres that serves, among other things, as a vital hub for the production of food, owing to its rich, peaty soil. Scott (who also plays with Slowdive) lived near the Fens as a child in the 1970s, and in 2010 returned to it while searching for a new approach to his music making. Over the next two years he wandered the area, laden with recording equipment, capturing everything from the sounds of bird life to ringing echoes inside a drain tunnel to the erratic rhythms of a metal cage around an electrical box buffeted by the wind. He then blended these field recordings with guitar and effects in a studio, then re-recorded those recordings in the fields of the Fens, picking up another layer of ambient sound over mixes played on portable speakers. The result is a fantastic immersion in – and an interpretation of – place, as well as an investigation of music and sound and where the two cross-pollinate.

Sealevel 1

Scott went back to the Fens and came up with a new take on Below Sea Level. Where the first version radiates a bucolic haze around itself over seven tracks ranging in length from five to seven minutes, the update is one extended 34-minute piece that conjures up an uncertain terrain of menacing voltage buzz and whispery static, shot through with clips of staccato bird calls, chittering insects, and the echoing crepitation of trickling water. The presence of humans is more apparent in the new recording (the panning splash of a passing car, the footsteps of Scott himself on dry reeds, the drone of an overhead jet, even the palpable breath of someone’s dog), and it creates a kind of tension that’s markedly absent from the original. It’s the same Fens but from a different point of view, and Scott suggests with both works that a phrase like “the same Fens” doesn’t actually mean much; that in fact it’s too vast, too diverse, too changeable to ever be one single, knowable, quantifiable place. He ends the new version with a return to more of that hazy, insulated, luminous music found on the first recording and it makes for a lovely, dreamy exit.

Cut to the recent conflagration in Australia. Or the continued, rapid disappearance of the polar ice caps. Or the recent floods in Indonesia. It’s clear we’re killing the planet. What can you do, as an artist, with that information in your consciousness, in the face of such an enormous crisis? Keep on doing your art. Especially now.

Scott’s new piece, Emergency Exit, put out on the Touch label, is a haunting two-track EP that’s brief but no less powerful for its brevity. Once again, Scott has gone to the Fens for inspiration, this time to record the sounds of flood waters there as well as the crackle of fire and the warning, echoing cries of birds. Any notion of the “musical” is nearly absent in a conventional sense from Emergency Exit. But the evocation of mood and place is potent. A coarse, corrosive wind blows through, buttressed by hard-to-identify rumblings and elongated moaning sounds. The human presence from before has been replaced by a post-human absence.

Scott is making a point here about the climate crisis and ecological ruin and what stands to be lost as the planet collapses beneath its human burden. The end of the world may have already happened. Like the Fens, it isn’t reducible to a single event. It happens gradually here and there and then all at once and everywhere. Emergency Exit is a document of the process of the ending and of the end. It’s recorded at the Fens but you and I, wherever we might be, are in it too. Give it a listen and get involved.