Various Artists: Sulphur Compound

Various Artists
Sulphur Compound
Sulfur
2001-06-25

The man behind Sulphur/Sulfur Records is Robin Rimbaud, a.k.a. Scanner, a.k.a. Scannerfunk, dubbed the “telephone terrorist” for his passion for stealing intercepted cell-phone conversations and weaving them into unsettling soundscapes. Listening to them is like eavesdropping on the whole nonsensical world all at once. The label’s dedicated to unearthing “abstract electronica and minimalistic schizophrenic jazz to dubbed-out rhythms and sampledelic experimentation”. This, then, is supposedly (and in fact) what Compound is about, as a showcase of both new and established Sulphur contributors.

Like their counterparts over at the label Warp, Sulphur’s sonic artists are sometimes dismissed as self-indulgent; as self-consciously eccentric, obscure, or academic; as determined to be avant garde. Perhaps they are, but I don’t think it’s worth getting annoyed about it. This kind of music would be nowhere if it wasn’t for the purposeful obscurity and self-indulgence of its creators; the more self-indulgent they are, the better. Well, up to a point.

Compound is, in any case, a fairly accessible collection, dominated by abstract, downtempo soundscapes. Featuring a few recognized names (like DJ Spooky, Future Pilot AKA, and Warp’s Two Lone Swordsmen) alongside newcomers (like Sukyaneer and Vertical Cat), it’s an album you could use to introduce wary but open-minded people (perhaps yourself?) to the shaky realm of experimental electronica.

The album is remarkably visual and spacey. It has a cinematic feel, and the intro sets the scene: noir. Footsteps fade in a dark alley, a match is lit, someone mutters “I’m just talking to myselves” (ample warning of the schizophrenia to come). Then the second track begins, in which instruments (and a telephone) seem to take their place one by one upon a stage. Only after observing this do I notice the track is aptly entitled “The Gates to Film City”. It’s an ominous but catchy contribution from Future Pilot AKA and Two Lone Swordsmen, featuring church chimes, voices, a strong trip-hop beat, and — it seems — electrically charged dust.

The first three tracks are relatively upbeat (perhaps to ease you in). Vertical Cat’s “Sway”, an excellent debut from London graphic artist Dan Arthure, has a happily demented feel, built around breakbeats and violin/synth.

The sky darkens with Scannerfunk’s “Cosy Veneer”. This is one of the more obvious instances of where the album blurs the line between the visual and the aural arts: it allows you to listen to a picture of Lenny Kravitz. Admittedly Mr Kravitz is not instantly recognizable, but that’s because the photograph of him has been put through a program that converts image into sound, and then it’s been played around with, added to, manipulated, and taken away from. That’s if Rimbaud is to be believed. Cosy this track is not, not even the veneer.

Ashley Wales’ contribution is also strikingly visual — only he makes a picture out of music instead of the other way round. It’s called “Landscape” and invokes a serene pastoral panorama — almost calming, but too much like a dirge, with an inescapable uneasy edge.

“Bass Instruction # 4” is a collaboration between experimental novelist Jeff Noon and composer/sound artist David Toop, off their album Needle in the Groove, which is also the title of Noon’s book. It’s a mesmerizing dream, bordering on nightmare, featuring Noon’s sleepy, slightly delirious-sounding lyrics over a scratchy sonic collage (like an old needle over damaged vinyl), and, as one of the most inspired and stirring tracks on Compound, it’s a great pity it’s only a minute long.

Stephen Vitiello’s “Forget What You Came For” is sparse, loosely structured and disorientating, with hollow scattered beats and menacing, far-off sounds — starkly atmospheric, but it’s hard to say what the atmosphere is exactly. Coming after it, David Abir’s “Lesson One” is like a friend. It’s an abstract ballet, reminiscent of Bach’s movements used in Disney’s Fantasia.

The album’s darkest moment comes from Sukyaneer’s “Dub Trementi Koto”: a nasty, uncomfortable, upsetting, sadistic number. And, catching you as it does in a somewhat bewildered state of mind, the penultimate track, Dstar’s “Mirror Image” feels like an assault. It starts with fierce, shrill scratching over a hip-hop beat with the rapping of MC Stainless Steele, interrupted by snatches of brutal punk-rock before mutating into a sharp, metallic drum ‘n’ bass variant, and then comfortless two-step. It’s an excellent, if harsh, track. The album ends with the calming but sad “Night Flight to Memphis”. Future Pilot AKA’s collaboration with the legendary Kim Fowley is heavy psychedelic pop with messy drugged-out lyrics and a rolling, sometimes hesitant beat — brilliant.

The Sulphur artists seem to have no pre-conceived ideas as to what is suitable as music’s raw material — with interesting, odd, often lovely, sometimes troubling, results. This is the antithesis of cheesy; the opposite of formulaic. The mood is often playfully somber, often tending towards gloomy, contemplative, brooding, demented, edgy. As a whole, Compound is less demanding than some music of its type, but it’s still absorbing, imaginative, artistic stuff, and I think the collection is excellent. File under abstract, ambient, dubby, experimental, minimalistic, philosophical, schizophrenic, self-indulgent, spacey electronica.

PopMatters