As well as being the title of The Letter’s opening track proper (following a cool announcement of the album title by vocalist Nina Bosnic), the word “- Gag” slots in perfectly with the atmosphere at work here. Everything sounds stifled: rasping distortion is strained out in sickening dry heaves, percussion flaps and rattles desperately in an attempt to ascend above the constrictive layers of sound that choke and press inwards, while Bosnic’s calm vocal utterances arrive as muffled word outlines, as though half-heard from behind black, woollen veils. Space is occasionally permitted to arise between the noise, at which point the listener is truly enlightened to the claustrophobia of their surroundings: sound seems to bounce right back off of metallic walls mere inches away on all sides, firing inwards as a cold, abrupt echo.
Rhythm often comes thumping upward from beneath the earth, thumping and rumbling in ritualistic cycles to which the rest of the texture slabs vaguely adhere. Drones scrape over the beats with a tectonic friction – taking the form of ghostly dissonant flutes, buried machinery whirr or creaky wails of violin – while voices mumble and chatter over the top. In fact, for all of the eerie sonic material that stutters and judders across the audio space, the most disturbing sound is in fact the most instantly familiar: Bosnic’s words are beautifully placed within each of these soundscapes and become an increasingly harrowing presence throughout; flatly pronounced from a mouth that feels dead and utterly disconnected, or at least immune to the twisted dissonance that writhes on all sides.
This is the debut album from improvisational studio-based experimental outfit Liberez. While their listed instrumentation – Guitar, violin, drums, keyboard and vocals – may be quite typical, their stated aims and their methods are much more adventurous. “The Letter” is a mixture of studio improvisation and other recordings far from the studio context – sounds of “fleeting incidents” captured by mobile phone and tape recorder. These crudely recorded sounds are intermingled with the studio-improv work, impassive spoken-word vocals, loops and so on.
With their beginnings as a two-piece “deconstruction” of a traditional band, and formed by a recording engineer, one would begin to suspect a certain amount of chin-stroking prog noodling as the order of the day. But this project very much put me in mind of Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis’ project DOME, formed after a break-up of Wire. In that case two blokes also went into the studio, improvised with recording methods as well as sound sources, and also added female vocals. DOME was many things, but chin-stroking certainly wasn’t one of them. But it did come off as quite scatter-shot, without a particular unifying mood or theme. “The Letter” keeps this experimental mood but feels much more coherent, and it hangs together very well.
The sound of Liberez has its root somewhere in noise rock territory. Certain sections of “The Letter” may well have the feeling of Big Black’s guitar chug, but it’s without the guitar itself. However this nucleus of sound is surrounded by a layered mass of other noises, textures, off-kilter rhythms, murmurs and screeches. The “noise” that’s left is crackling, shuddering loops of almost hesitant overwash that creeps in and out of a woolen, throbbing bass. The “noisier” tracks – “Gag” and “I, Capt. Wyclaf” are restrained in their approach; the loops of harsher sound are backed up with layers of other, subtler tones and curious clatterings and fumblings that sound like they’re taking place some distance away.
It’s not harsh, aggressive noise but neither is a comfortable, enveloping thing. It’s awkward, shy, considered, and a little sinister in its obliqueness. It’s not abstract music either, it has structure and form but they’re also off-kilter and lilting. Certain tracks – “Exercise Restraint” for one – put me in mind of some of the odder Neubauten outtakes, but these would be ones that’d been recorded through the wall on a night when the Berliners had been in a downward spiral of bad gin drinking.
The vocals are muffled, murmured, repeated phrases, sometimes male and sometimes female. It’s hard to discern what’s being said, or even what language they’re in, but this is clearly the point. The words themselves are not for us – they are personal, internalized by the band – but the pattern of sound they produce is key. Layered and looped with other indistinct sounds, drums softened so they’re barely percussive, echoes and creaks, and the occasional shower of the aforementioned crackling noise, the vocals are merely another layer of beguiling sound. The overall impression is of a considered and intentional piece of sonic obfuscation, purposefully imperfect and awkward.
With 9 tracks coming in at just over 40 minutes, “The Letter” doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s not so intense or overpowering as to be draining to listen to – again, it’s not that kind of “noise”. However there are plenty of experimental works that do just go on and on, so perhaps we should be thankful for Liberez’s restraint and simply await the next record from them.
Here’s a gem I’ve left festering at the bottom of the box for too long, the LP The Letter (ALTER ALT05) by Liberez released in May 2011. This English avant-rock combo were formed by the recording engineer John Hannon and the drummer Pete Wilkins, both former members of Woe. The group was soon rounded out by the addition of guitarist and keyboard player Tom James Scott, who’s had a couple of releases on Bo’Weavil. Their secret weapon is the vocalist Nina Bosnic, whose highly unorthodox role in the band is to pour her ominous spoken-word texts in the microphone, producing recordings which are themselves looped, repeated, and heavily processed in the studio workflow. Indeed it seems that it was one of her texts, a private diary-like recounting of an incident from her home country, that sparked the catalyst causing Liberez to cease tinkering with lo-fi home recordings and start to gain an identity of its own. Once you hear Bosnic’s looped sprechtsing (especially on the title track, split into three separate parts) you’ll quickly discern the overlap into avant-garde sound poetry and Steve Reich tape loops; and the whole band are studio-wise experimenting noiseniks almost on a par with This Heat or The Pop Group. In fact the whole Liberez mission statement involves intelligent notions about deconstructing traditional apprehensions about band dynamics, and moving widely and freely into areas of wild experimentation and music production, freely admitting influences from avant-garde composition in a meaningful way (instead of simply namechecking every European composer who’s ever had a release on the Philips silver series or spliced a tape within spitting distance of Pierre Schaeffer). All I know is, I loved their claustrophobic and catastrophic bass-heavy sound within ten seconds of hearing it, and the LP lives up to its title, performing like a dispatch of urgent news from a strife-torn corner of the contemporary world. Highly recommended listening!