Change Is The Only Constant – A Look at the Work of Cindytalk

The more basic emotional responses one might have to music – it’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s thrilling – rarely seem to apply when faced with the work of Cindytalk. Cinder, founder and primary member of Cindytalk, after starting the band in 1982, eschews traditional choices and modes in their music, an approach which yields endlessly new experiences in listening. If there’s a consistent emotional response for me toward their work, it’s a continually renewed sense of astonishment. Needless to say, this is rare. If only more artists would be so bold.

The first Cindytalk album I heard back in 1994 was 1990’s The Wind is Strong…, which was also the soundtrack to Ivan Unwin’s unreleased film, Eclipse (The Amateur Enthusiast’s Guide To Virus Deployment).

I wasn’t ready for it at the time, mired as I was in the dregs of a dying interest in more conventional rockist music. The album felt inverted to me, like some kind of wounded creature, mournful and grim and riddled with hidden recesses of pain that would occasionally rupture – between recordings of birdsong and plaintive piano – into prickly, caterwauling, electronic squalls. It mystified and mesmerized me, and spawned countless speculative visions of what that Eclipse film might have looked like. The more I listened to it, the further it pulled me in a new direction, away from the tired music I’d known, and deeper toward the startling, the unknown, and the unknowable. I wanted more.

I managed to track down a previous album, In This World, but failed to connect with it. So I made do with what I had and kept an eye out for signs of life.

Then in 2009, The Crackle Of My Soul, was released on the legendary label, Editions Mego. Fifteen years after my first encounter, I was thrilled to discover I still wasn’t ready.

With its tentative semaphore feed and parched whistling sounds slowly becoming surrounded by low-flying drones, “Signaling Through The Flames” sets the tone for the album, which unfolds into an apocalyptic landscape with negligible boundaries and little sanctuary. “Of Ghosts and Buildings” is all buzzing paranoia and disembodied surveillance, the audio feed of a captured nightmare. “Troubled Aria” is a pulsing shortwave broadcast from an abandoned post, marbled with radioactive wow and flutter, trapped in aether and recorded on a Geiger counter. Distant voices are heard in “Our Shadow Remembered” and “Feathers Burn” but they’re cold, bloodless things, contextualized in ruins of static and disrepair. Tension eases momentarily with the arrival of the “Transgender Warrior,” a floating, radiant being – and a stand-in for Cinder – cloaked in gently pulsing, diaphanous tones, but it’s the final track that completely disarms.

In “Debris of A Smile,” merciful rain is heard and very nearly felt after the relentless crackle and hiss of what’s come before, and it’s accompanied by simple, introspective piano, pointing back in some ways to the album’s title. The track slowly fades into scratch and static, but gently so, and by the song’s end, those elements are being warmed by a soothing sunlit melody that’s forced its way through the pall. Crackle is harsh, alien, single-minded in its realization, jarring yet atmospherically cohesive. Cinder’s pacing and control of their materials keeps it from becoming monotonous, or worse, claustrophobic.

On the surface, the next Cindytalk album, Up Here In The Clouds from 2010 appears to be a companion piece to Crackle but similarities stop with the cover art.

Where tracks tend to exist unto themselves on Crackle in a largely self-contained way, they instead build and cycle and mutate on Up Here, gathering disparate elements along the way while discarding others toward each track’s fully realized expression. There’s a fresh range of textures and dynamics at work, combinatory clashes in extremes. A feeling of a search for something wholly new, rooted in recognizable, raw emotions yet expressed in a revelatory light.

Highlights are hard to choose, but the opener “The Eighth Sea,” with its panning washes of granulated static, conjures up a familiar stormy mood complete with lost souls adrift – yet the emotional affect is cool, stoic, spectral. The emphasis is on the totality of the scene, not the drama in it. A slow, steady, chugging rhythm undergirding hissing gaseous vapors initially propels “We Are Without Words” until the engine collapses and the scene is enveloped in penetrating metallic tones, subterranean groans, and warping sheets of feedback. The term ambi-dustrial, originally coined by Cinder to describe their work, fits precisely here.

“Hollow Stare” dials things back at first, setting up a gently chiming, buzzed atmosphere before bringing down a head-cleaving axe of caustic, shattering noise that thoroughly scratches every last unreachable itch for me. The nacreous, ethereal opening of “Multiple Landings” slowly gives way to frozen blasts from ancient ceremonial horns that call forth rushing layered streams before fading to silence beneath the ring of a closing bell. It feels righteously epic while gracefully avoiding grandiosity. The album closes with “Up Here In The Clouds,” a simple melody played on a keyboard, but its modest splashes of color and warmth provide the perfect ending.

Cindytalk’s next album was Hold Everything Dear , released in 2011. It takes its title from a book of the same name by writer/polymath John Berger (who took it in turn from a poem of the same name by Gareth Davis that serves as the book’s introduction) and it represents another evolution in sound for Cinder.

Some of the material for the album was written and recorded with former Cindytalk bassist Matt Kinnison during the years 2006 – 2011 (Kinnison died of cancer in 2008; the album is dedicated to both him and John Berger). The title, like the poem it’s taken from, is essentially an exhortation to open oneself to a deeper appreciation of existence, one’s own and those of others, before one ceases to be. And from the opening track, “How Soon Now,” with its field recordings of raucous children, echoing wind chimes, and dreaming acoustic piano, through to the album’s closer, “…Until We Disappear,” which seems to answer the question posited in the first title both verbally and musically, it’s clear that Cinder has rooted themselves more directly in the immediate and the temporal than on their two previous albums. The result is a more somber, reflective work, with space and silence given greater prominence.

Hold Everything Dear is an album that’s difficult to pry apart into distinct tracks with particular features. It plays out as a totality unto itself, almost as if it were one long extended work, punctuated by four brief piano interludes that offer variations on a musical theme, while reinforcing sublimated ideas of change and loss and cycles of life. Despite the leanings toward mortality, there’s nothing morose in any of it. It’s a yearning, mysterious, wistful album, rippling with evidence of lived life. Of Cinder’s Mego output, Hold Everything Dear stands apart as the work most reflective of the materialty of existence, embodying presence, absence, and impermanence.

A Life Is Everywhere from 2013, presents the sound of Cinder reinventing themselves once again.

“Time To Fall (Exterminating Angel)” opens with a bell ringing, the summoning sound of which is sent into doubling patterns and feedback before everything is subsumed in a blinding blizzard of ground glass and ascending tones. It’s this combination of the visceral and the ethereal that sets the course for the rest of the album. “My Drift Is A Ghost” is relentless with scouring blasts of static, brittle percussive cycles, and warped mournful pads, all combining to cleanse the interior of your skull as if to clear it of any preconceptions. “To A Dying Star,” a wordless homage to longing, fills that newly cleared zone, unraveling in arcing, granulated banners that spend themselves in extension before disintegrating into silence, while “Interruptum” explores even deeper space and silence with fizzing, popping depth charges, deep descending tones, and haunted notes from a church organ.

The album closes with “As If We Had Once Been,” a radiating throb of sound surrounded by clacking flashes of static. It conjures up an idea for me of what the sun might sound like in all its rotund enormity and random solar flares if it were a living, breathing thing. A bold and utterly unique album, A Life Is Everywhere at forty minutes is too short by half and one of Cindytalk’s best.

Like Hold Everything Dear, 2016’s The Labyrinth of The Straight Line shares a kind of thanatotic strain.

And like that album, Labyrinth is also punctuated at its beginning, middle, and end, only not by solo piano variations on a theme. In this case, they are audio clips taken from the 1983, Chris Marker-esque, non-narrative film, Ghost Dance, directed by Ken McMullen, and featuring a cameo from Jacques Derrida, who speaks of ghosts, cinema, and notions of the past. Each monologue, delivered in terse monotone (and not by Derrida), details a list of sorts. The album begins despairingly with “Sea of Lost Hopes” in which the narrator speaks over the sound of pummeling waves of a:

            sea of electric eels

            sea of unknown movement

            far below the surface…

            sea of ritualistic murder

            sea of history…

            sea of lost hopes

            sea of despair

            sea of occasional reason

            sea without time

The voice is soon silenced by a welter of menacing, metallic clatter that builds before coming to an abrupt end. “Shifting Mirrors” is a track that seems to occupy a place of perpetual arrival, wherein an initial approach of creeping hiss, rattle, and crepitation is slowly layered over and replaced by an over-wound, clock-like rhythm that’s eventually pushed under by an encroaching drone that rests finally but uneasily between a somber tone and pure noise. It’s a mesmerizing, unsettling track. “In Search Of New Realities” has an almost techno-like feel with its understated rhythms and ascending pads playing out a mournful melody. It’s ironic to me that the new reality sought after is so reminiscent of an established genre, but it’s a gripping track all the same. “I Myself Am An Absolute Abyss” features a rattling snare drum set loose amidst thick waves of pressure rising and falling beneath a glittering fog of static and the occasional Quindar tone.

“Lost Unfound,” features a Cindytalk solo piano interlude; only this track also features the return of the narrator who wants:

to be inside and outside at the same time

to be the one who sees

and the one who is seen

to enter the place where space becomes time

and time stops still

to escape from time forever

Not to impose too strong a narrative on these spoken parts, but there seems to be a shift from the despair of the first piece to a kind of yearning here, even if that yearning is hopeless. Suitably the music that follows shifts gears as well. “A Wolf At The Door” at 15 minutes in length, is a vast, rain-soaked, ambi-dustrial track that swells and leans and hovers in its sonic materialization of disused space until birds can be heard chirping within it and the tone lightens. A woman’s voice surfaces, mutters something unintelligible and then is gone. Sunlight breaks through but nothing can be seen because nothing is there.

The album takes a bewildering turn after that. “The Labyrinth of The Straight Line,” a grim, tuneless techno track with an unyielding rhythm provides sonic commentary on the perils of conformity. “Sleight of Mind,” a barren ambi-dustrial track is filled primarily with random sounds of gunfire, and “Who Will Choose My Dress” is a cross-hatched thicket of silver scratched clouds that slowly morphs into an unobscured vista floating on layered, dreamy pads. The album closes with “Filthy Sun In Diminishing Light,” a dizzying melange of corrugated, fizzing textures, piercing keyboard stabs and hovering throbs that compete with each other before the track resolves in what sounds like, of all things, steel drums. In the midst of this, the narrator returns a final time:

            They’re coming closer

            I’ve been expecting them

            They really don’t know what’s happening

            They don’t know the end

            There’s not much time left

            The wish to stop time

            Is a deathly wish

            They’re going to see an image of their own struggle

            With their own persona

            They’ll be left with that

            I’ll leave them that at least

Who are they? Are we them? This image of a very personal struggle, is this Cinder’s “gift” to the listener? Is this Cinder’s struggle with themselves? Is it a challenge from a non-binary person to a restrictive, dominant, binary culture? All of the above? None? A trip back through the album looking for answers sounds like something you’ve never heard before all over again.  The Labyrinth of The Straight Line is a manifesto of non-conformity, a puzzle, and a love letter all in one. An essential work.

Cinder’s most recent full-length works, 2021’s Of Ghosts and Buildings, released on the Japanese remodel label, and 2022’s Subterminal, released on False Walls, present a new set of changes.

The tracks on Of Ghosts and Buildings are mostly lengthy ambi-dustrial things imbued with uncanny atmospheres; haunted and inhabited spaces, as the album title suggests, that are thick and seething with the ever-present, cloudy turbulence of Cindytalk crackle and electrified burr. “Long For The Future Long For The Past” puts us in a room with live electrical cables, cut and dangling to the floor, spitting out sparks in all directions. It’s a menacing environment that feels dangerously alive. In addition, the album seems to put more of an emphasis on melody, not in any predictable, patterned sense of that term, but more for use as color and mood, another element among elements instead of a determining force. “A Different Breed Of Flower,” for example, is filled with keening chords that push back against gusts of frigid static.

All well and good, however, it feels as if something vital is missing. For all the moods evoked and textures worked up, the album strikes me as too sedate, too stationary, too vacant. The exploratory principle – a key element for me in Cinder’s work – that’s so prevalent elsewhere feels conspicuously absent here.

Like Of Ghosts and Buildings, Subterminal is made up of long tracks. And like that album, the tracks have a tendency to idle, to claim space without really exploring it.

“See, Seer, Seek” opens up a vast Vantablack chasm haunted with dubby echoes and creepy respirations but lingers in the doorway without venturing into the depths. “Where Everything Sparkles And Shines” rumbles and throbs against splashes of static and piercing church organ but the track stalls, accumulating time and little else. “Systems Are Spiraling” is the highlight for me, a mournful track of random chords rolling in like waves spending themselves on an empty beach while tuneless electric wisps flash and extinguish overhead like dying stars. There’s real emotional power in it. Still, I wish the album had closed with it rather than “We Fly Away With The Birds,” a lengthy passage to nowhere.

There are no surprises anywhere for me on Subterminal. Nothing to raise an eyebrow or a goosebump. Stranger still, I feel no sense of Cinder’s presence. There’s no heartbeat in it, no pulse.

But here’s the thing. Compared with the explosive power and range of the Mego albums, almost anything else is going to sound slight. And what’s the option? Keep rolling in the same rut? I’d rather Cinder grow and change and push their art than stagnate and recycle. And who knows? Time might change my mind. A year from now, these might be my favorite Cindytalk albums. I wasn’t ready the first time I heard their work. Perhaps I’m not ready now and I just don’t know it. Either way, I’ll jump at the next thing they deliver. There’s nobody like them.

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.