Someone making ambient music from your phone media scraps.
One of the most unusual and intriguing releases in 2020 was ‘u,i’ – an album born in pandemic collaboration between Olivier Alary and Johannes Malfatti. Together they embark on an esoteric journey to comment on modern-day communication methods and then places them in a hazy ambient and orchestral drone setting. It is a strange mix that often feels like its going out of its way to be awkward but there are moments of purity that really stand out too.
Recorded and made entirely over internet call apps like Skype or Zoom, the duo chop up various sound and vocal snippets and drop them into ethereal hazes, ambient static and some caustic string arrangements. Some tracks such as the beautiful ‘Alone, Singing’ utterly nails the ethereal charm – feeling like you’ve been graced by a bright otherworld. Elsewhere, it is often the string arrangements that start to jar against some of the other effects to make the music feel uncomfortable and not really in keeping with other tones around it. It is as if Olivier and Johannes are commenting on dissonance and how it ripples out from instrument to instrument but depending on your mood and how you tackle some purposefully jarring transitions and chord progressions – your mileage will vary greatly. I’m normally one who enjoys the challenge and I found the more avant-garde pieces like ‘Interlaced’ were quite cinematic. Here voice mail and telephone clips are all chopped up into a weird slew of aggressive chops.
For me, the album contains so much noise in the dissonance that I found it difficult to get into. The juxtaposition of cloudy ethereal synths and really harsh tv clips or abrasive cuts didn’t draw me in but instead pushed me away. I felt like an outsider to the world Olivier and Johannes seemed to be creating and the amount of inhaling breathes from calls dropped around the album felt like it was one step away from veering into an Asian horror movie. That being said, the closing track ‘Are You Awake?’ is nine minutes of some of the best hazy hued synths and field recording mixes that I’ve heard in a long time. It feels dreamy and layered with things you wouldn’t expect to hear but unlike much of the album, they aren’t layered in a jarring way – it is far more curious. That style absolutely worked for me and I could have that track on repeat and zone out happily for ages.
Olivier Alary and Johannes Malfatti have made a difficult record full of difficult things in a difficult time. I didn’t get it and it didn’t really gel with me but ambient and field recording fans will likely click with it more than myself. I came for the hazy sleep and fever dream moments but instead for waylaid by minimalist discord of strings and awkward vocal transitions. I can appreciate where they were going but this one isn’t for me.
Recommended track: Alone, Singing
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