Deaf Center, Owl Splinters

Photo by Kimberly Sikyea

[Type Records]

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The first release on John Twells’ Type Records was a short album called Neon City by the Norwegian duo of Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland. Type Records had risen from the ashes of Neo Ouija’s and Twells project Xela, but had increasingly veered away from the enchantingly fractured IDM Neo Ouija was known for, with Xela’s experiments with cinematic sounds and noise as the inspiration for a new sound. No one exemplified that sound more than Deaf Center, and having them helm the first release on Type was symbolically important. A year later, in 2005, the full-length epic Pale Ravine was released and solidified their incredibly nuanced distillation of field recordings, pianos, strings, and foreboding glacial compositions. This album helped to forge an entirely new look at droning noise tempered by beautiful musicianship and a contemplative pace. Six years later, Deaf Center resurface with Owl Splinters, the 80th release on Type. Their return couldn’t be more welcome.

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Something strange happened to “contemporary classical” in the intervening six years. The noise started to surge back to the forefront, even on releases close to the heart of Deaf Center and Type Records. Xela’s music became more about noise experimentation and Erik Skodvin’s project Svarte Greiner lost it’s dark beauty when the compositions were submerged in layers of droning ambience. Releases from William Fowler Collins on Type and Kreng on Skodvin’s Miasmah Recordings furthered the dark descent into prominent noise. The well-known work of Emeralds certainly had it’s genesis in the early Type sound, and even they have drifted afield in later releases. The way that noise and ambience were seated within a musical framework is where Deaf Center shined in comparison to their contemporaries. While Ryan Teague is an immaculate producer, for example, his music always lacked that gritty subtext; and although Peter Broderick and Helios perfected a kind of cinematic pop with their steady songwriting, the sound of life was often absent. This separation from organic sounds is where contemporary classical composers like Tim Hecker and William Basinski have fallen short to my ears. While beautifully composed and executed, there is an austere and academic quality to their music that lacks an emotional resonance. Deaf Center has always seemed to know how to write a song that sounded like life was happening to and around the listener, in all its noisy, musical forms.

On Owl Splinters, this is apparent from the very first track, “Divided.” The stretched and sliding strings sound like the moment at night when you are shutting off the lights, and the hum of your home or apartment gives way and the sounds of life outside come to the surface, like seeing the stars once beyond the brightness of a city. Clocking in at almost 11 minutes is centerpiece “The Day I Would Never Have,” which moves from a quiet piano meditation into droning strings with drifting ease before being completely overridden by a wave of dark ambience. It’s almost a David Lynch scene, beauty to menace to cacophony with deliberation. This is the type of mood altering composition for which Deaf Center has always been admired. They craft a musical narrative by taking their time and moving subtly from sound to sound and mood to mood.

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There are actually two albums here, happening side by side. Aside from the intense explorations of noise and beauty, both Skodvin and Totland take time out for short meditations on their chosen instruments. For Totland, it’s the piano, and his solo piece, “Time Spent,” is a perfect companion to the song that follows it, “New Beginning (Tidal Darkness),” which melds ponderous piano chords with foreboding strings. Skodvin takes to his cello for “Animal Sacrifice,” a song that acts as a slight epilogue to the long “The Day I Would Never Have.” Stripped of other sounds burying its deep register, Skodvin’s cello slips and drifts with precise control, like a punk rock Yo Yo Ma. These solo pieces are the best indications of where this type of music fits, a modern examination of pure composition, which enfolds all the grittiness and melancholy of present times. The slowly moving closing piece “Hunted Twice” makes sparing use of both instruments in a dark meditation of suspense. The cello drifts in through the mists, drenched in feedback and reverb, while a piano gently plinks away in the distance, building and building until the fog parts and respite is momentarily given.

After the tumultuous few years in which Type Records has explored several facets of modern composition, drawing in classical, noise, rock, electronics, and many points in between, it’s refreshing to hear the response of a pair of progenitors on Owl Splinters. Sometimes a movement of music veers off course and becomes something more vital. Sometimes it can lose focus as well. For me and many others, the combination of serious musicianship and sound experimentation was always what made me excited about new Type releases. If Deaf Center decides to reform every couple years for a collection as thoughtful and masterful as this album, the music community will be able to count themselves lucky and grateful.

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