This month sees the release of the eighth Darkroom album, Some Of These Numbers Mean Something, available from Burning Shed. Darkroom are ambient keyboardist and looping soundscaper Os and experimental guitarist Michael Bearpark. Seldom an Improvizone gig goes by these days without benefiting from the involvement of Os or Mike, usually both. Reciprocally, their latest album features some guest drummer they dragged out of his house without difficulty one evening last Spring.
Although I play on several tracks on SOTNMS, I feel impartial enough to be able to write about it, having had very little to do with making this music beyond turning up to my regular practice session in a rehearsal room in Tottenham Hale on Wednesday 16 April 2008 and flapping a couple of sticks up and down for a few hours. Hardly hard work for me.
Plenty of hard work has gone into this album though. The first thing that strikes me when I listen is the complexity of this work, relative to what you would expect from a group known for its ambient output. This is an album that Os has painstakingly put together out of Mike's guitar parts and his keyboard textures, and it's an approach that works really well. You get the Bearpark spontaneity and ingenuity that we're used to hearing live, and you get to hear what Os is capable of when he doesn't have to do live looping during a gig. There are organised chord and mood changes, and pieces with solid forms and arrangements.
For example, opener The Valley Of Ten Thousand Smokes has the initial signs of a techno track, but its programmed beat is a framework for a series of sinister/melancholy Bearpark phrases, sweeping in at different registers. As much rock action as ambience.
If the first thing that surprised me was how composed the music is on this album, the second was what Os did with the drums. I thought he wanted material for looping. In other words, during the session, I was trying to play reasonably well, but wasn't bothering about getting a good take. I'd never heard the material, and assumed Os would just chop and loop the good bits of what was usually a single take. I didn't realise he was going to use large sections of unedited playing. Perhaps neither did he. Mercury Shuffle, the most straight-ahead track on the album, is a case in point. The feel is late summer evening looking west over a Dagenham factory as the sun sets. By the sound of it, Os used the drums pretty much as I played them. Towards the end I start messing up, and take the entire track down with me.
My Sunsets Are All One-Sided begins with a 50s electronica Raymond Scott feel with something that sounds like a steel drum in reverse. Then some rolling taps echo in the background, and it takes on an new shape and the excitement mounts, pauses a couple of times, then swoops back in with pounding piano, offbeat post-rock distorted drums and looped guitar swells. It's pretty thrilling.
More futuristic electronica arrives in the form of No Candy No Can Do, a piece full of character and one of my favourites, with a sublime jazzy lilt and lounge guitar sounding like it was played in an enormous 23nd century shopping mall. Terrific, and contrasted nicely by the next piece, Two Is Ambient. This one has a thrillingly sinister and menacing downbeat groove, acoustic guitar adding to the tension and unease. Dirty drums drag in and out, it goes gently mad towards the end, slowly taking itself to pieces around the meandering beat.
In the brilliantly titled Chalk Is Organised Dust, sci-fi sweeps and burbles give way to a wiry string section and a slightly wonky assembly-line shuffling drum loop. Like watching an amateur production of Fritz Lang's Metropolis played out in telephone exchange in the 1940s, from your vantage point on a grassy knoll. Following the bitter-sweet pastorale of Insecure Digital which finishes all too soon, the album closes with an acoustic flourish introducing Turtles All The Way Down, which quickly descends into some demonic Bearpark distortion. By the time the drums kick in, it's gripping, the tense pulsing and chugging guitar constantly suggesting it's going to break into something else. It doesn't. In the end, again the drums fall apart and take the rest of the track with them.
Overall, the album is a great showcase for the dual Darkroom strengths. Mike's endless imagination and sound palette with Os's arrangement and production skills combine to a fine mix of beauty and tension. While albums of this genre, constructed from samples recycled from other music, can sound awkward and disjointed, this one is no Frankenstein's Monster. All the source material is organically home-grown, and the result is coherent and human.
While they were chosing the album cover, Mike showed me the candidates. His favourite was the dated concord photo, in its a day an image of the future, now a dated relic. I particularly like this, Mike said, pointing to the flowery-patterned fold-up chair in the bottom left corner. Improvizone regular Nick Cottam and I were in a cheesy band several years ago, for which, as a symbol of my appreciation of this, I am happy to tell you I wore a thin nylon shirt with a strikingly similar design.