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.
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.