Sonnamble Blindlight Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

London duo takes a macrocosmic approach to sound.

Wyndham Wallace 2011

Listening to Sonnamble’s second album, it’s almost impossible to recognise the source material for what it once was, so extreme is the treatment it’s been given. The London-based duo are made up of Peter Marsh, whose extensive use of stringed instruments provides the basis for their work, and Conor Curran, who is responsible for manipulating it until it’s a ghost of its former self. Like Christian Fennesz, they work in the margins of electronic music, creating a sound born of traditional instrumentation – in this case, for the most part, Marsh’s lap steel guitar, whose tones have then been shredded and reconstructed within Curran’s circuit boards. Judging from the results, it’s unlikely Lady Gaga will be asking them to operate on any forthcoming singles, but there will definitely be some who consider that a loss, both to her and indeed us all.

Much of Sonnamble’s work is improvised, but there’s an art to what they do: Curran’s homemade software seems able to reduce every note down to its even smaller constituent parts and then sieve out what suits their goal. The sound is therefore strangely granular, with the opening notes of Aphelion I spreading out and blurring at the edges until they distort and flutter into tiny sounds of their own. It’s like moving one’s face ever closer to a TV screen, with the picture slowly reduced from an overall pattern to a mass of pixels. What is experienced isn’t identifiable in any standard sense, but is nonetheless fascinating.

Obviously, then, Sonnamble’s approach is an intellectual one, with melody and rhythm alien concepts. Yet these ambient, floating, minimalist soundscapes still have the ability to emote, partially due to the oddly physical nature of the individual elements: they fizz and they fray, they tap and they pop. There’s also an equally curious mortality to each component as it decays and disappears, with the 10-minute title-track especially effective, as though it’s illustrating the slow death of a distant star.

They take a slightly different approach with Society, which features Curran’s uncle discussing the nature of 20th century Irish healthcare buried beneath the now familiar distortion and sparkles. It says a lot about the hypnotic effect of these details that the spoken words, normally a focus for many listeners, become simply another feature of the composition, drifting in and out of focus as though blown on a gentle breeze. The effect is unexpectedly nostalgic, and in truth that’s perhaps Blindlight’s greatest achievement: as Curran manipulates and even mutilates Marsh’s sounds, what results seems to mourn their passing…

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