The Velvet Underground and Nico and Andy Warhol. Emerson, Lake, Palmer, and Giger. Black Flag & Raymond Pettibon. Joy Division/Saville. Blur vs. Banksy. Robert A.A. Lowe and Rose Lazar.
The role of the graphic artist on an album is often thought to be supplemental and supportive, a function of and for the music contained within. In the post-P2P age, many music downloading services don’t even offer the album art as part of the priced package. At a time when print media and big music is rapidly losing money, visual components of music releases are quickly falling by the wayside and the bond between the cover and its inserts has been marginalized to a generation who refuse to think about music as a mystified material object rather than something that hits your ears without any means of production.
Robert A.A. Lowe apparently wants to rectify this as he has just released his second album that is credited to both himself and designer/artist Rose Lazar. Their first collaboration, Gyromancy, was a mini-CD couched in a 72-page perfect-bound book of visual art by the two. Eclipses, their latest, is just as much a fetish item. Limited to just 750 copies, the album is being released on LP only with a 12” x 36” poster enclosed that was envisioned as a “storyboard” of the sonics. The artwork consists of somewhat crude, almost childlike sketches. A cave dripping magma transforms into a diamond mine. A diamond refracts a rainbow of color outward. A heap of tiny stacked circles. A psychedelic windmill. A patch of anamorphic mushrooms. Most of the images are not linked in any particular way, making any narrative abstract at best.
Like the images, Lowe’s music is quite rudimentary. His previous project, the mid-naughts solo outfit Lichens, put out two albums of focused, heavily postulated pagan woodland mantra psychedelic improv music on Kranky records. It was remarkably focused work even within all its looseness, living and breathing in the after-effect of rampant FX. The nucleus of its strange aura was Lowe’s cariously treated voice, which took on otherworldly dimensions when layered and processed beyond carbon-based life form recognition.
Eclipses contains next to no mixing board resources, has zero trace of Lowe’s larynx, and is tight and controlled. Recorded on analogue synthesizers, Eclipses is practically Lichens’ inverse. Its antecedents are mostly sounds from over 30 years ago, sequenced music from the synthesizer’s early dawn. Kosmische is probably an apt reference, though the album is light on the prerequisite echo chambers and cavernous amounts of spacey reverb attributable to that scene. The pieces that hark back to the most to Cluster (a definite influence) are the luminous loops of “Suno Vidis” and the soft synth waltz of “Turing Punkto”. Both of these are terrestrial at heart, like the nursery loops of Roedelius’s wind-up field-recordings-of-machinal-bird chronicle, Jardin Au Fou.
“Ŭyndham-a Horloĝo” evokes outer space the most, but its symbolic content is scientific and clinical, a homophonic arpeggio that spans the first half of the track that is pitched like a translation from within a laboratory beaker. Deeply panned swooshes and electro-gurgles overpower and interrupt throughout until the main melodic thrust is stripped to sparse tonalities.
Lowe has not lost his gift for euphony. The redundant overlapping susurrations of “Tajdoj Ondoj” are almost like a pleasant ringtone, for instance. Even his darker material, like “Kreintoj” and the opening 11 minute piece “Crayon Gum” are also beautiful in a more occult manner. The former is concentrated and motile like the Lichens material. The latter is more of a set piece, like the satanic synth works of Mort Garson or an uneasy listening interlude by the Advisory Circle.
Though the visual art does offer its merits, it’s ultimately a pale transcript of the vibrant sounds, which is unfortunate given the degree of emphasis given to its inclusion. Ultimately, when listening to the album, one will focus on the empty white of the canvas, which covers a vast majority of the poster, more than the Basquiat-like details. Lowe’s audio may be stark and slightly retro-gazing, but it’s certainly not primitive.