[20 January 2009]
Portuguese experimental musician Rafael Toral is primarily known as a guitarist, but he’ll occasionally chuck the guitar in favor of less conventional instrumentation to use as the basis for his compositions. The sound source in his live recording Aeriola Frequency was, in fact, no sound source; it consisted only of a feedback loop running through two amps and an equalizer, with no actual input. And his latest studio recordings, Space and Space Solo 1, plumbed the outskirts of accessibility and musicality with scattered computerized utterances lying across a vacuous soundfield.
Space Elements Vol. 1 continues where the space-themed records last dropped us: beeps, boops, isolated vibraphone hits, a scratching violin like a fridge being dragged across a varnished floor, oddball percussion, enough “take me to your leader” noises to make a high school jock blush, and nary a guitar in sight. The sounds Toral employs are weird and nifty, and if you haven’t watched a whole bunch of pre-Star Wars sci-fi films or spent hours inside a public domain soundtrack library, they’ll be quite novel, too. Often isolated from each other and emitting hollow reverb like gamma rays, they have an analog charm that reaches toward a sonic no-man’s-land further back than most electronic musicians are willing to go; we can easily imagine them existing in the kind of vintage “space” that Stanley Kubrick and Ed Wood must have dreamed about before we landed a man on the moon.
If only they had cohered into something more interesting. A big part of the problem is that Space Elements is both arrhythmic and atonal, an approach that grows very old very quickly. Toral seems to have placed sounds together nearly at random; looking for rhyme or reason inside each of the seven tracks is a waste of effort. Tempos? Melodies? Organization? Forget it. At best, this is a smattering of interesting sounds that don’t know what the hell they’re doing—all idea and no follow-through, the fate of process musicians too enamored with process to make music. Pity, too, the paucity of track-to-track variation, especially in the record’s first half.
“I.I” (the first track) lays out the theme with exploratory vibraphones, violin scrapes, and a few digital wooden knocks. “I.II” is computerized burps and squeals with a solitary shaker sound every now and again (first thought: get the dang mouse out of that maraca), and “I.III” is pretty much the same as “I.I”, plus the inconsequential addition of a ratchet. By “I.VI” the sounds begin to go haywire and provide the record with its only gripping moment, but it also slams the nail right into the coffin: from soft and sparse to wild and crazy, Toral has seemingly explored every square inch of the stratospheric environment he’s created for himself, and it isn’t very exciting. Has he grown a permanent distaste for his guitar? Did he lose it somewhere in the house? Whatever the case may be, if I see the word “space” in the title of his next album, I’ll kindly pass.