Tim Catlin & Machinefabriek
LP/download on Low-Point, March 2015
'Whorls' is my third album with Tim Catlin from Australia. Like the previous ones, it started with Tim improvising on his (partly self-build) instruments, such as an acoustic synthesizer, bowed piano and the virbrissa. These improvisations form the base of 14 short tracks, released on the Low Point label.
Stream or order the album at
Bandcamp (also in digital format)
Prolific Dutch experimental electronic artist Rutger Zuydervelt (aka Machinefabriek) first discovered the work of Melbourne composer Tim Catlin when researching prepared guitar. Catlin who’s extended techniques had resulted in compelling somewhat stately works like Radio Ghosts, was intriguing enough to Zuydervelt that he reached out over the Internet and they began working together. It’s testament to how successful this collaboration has been that this is now their third album together, following on from 2009’s Glisten and 2011’s Patina.
In the resultant four years Catlin has extended beyond his extended guitar and now predominantly performs live with his Overtone ensemble, offering remarkable microtonal works on his self made instruments that he’s dubbed Vibrissa, which are essentially large aluminum rods that his ensemble then stroke, the vibrations creating these ethereal haunting otherworldly sounds.
The vibrissa appears on Whorls, as does zither, bowed piano, avian guitar, and acoustic synth guitar, all played by Catlin. Zuydervelt then reorders, recontextualises, processes and provides additional layers to Catlin’s sounds, and you’d imagine sending them into entirely new realms. Whorls is much more dynamic than its predecessors. It feels like there is a wider palette here, in fact each successive piece feels like a whole new sound world into itself. This is not an album you lose yourself in and let it wash ethereally over you, rather it requires, or possibly demands active listening. That’s not to say that amongst its crackles, plinks, glitches, drones and flutters there aren’t seductive sound worlds waiting, it’s more that the diversity of approaches and sounds is quite staggering and the duos decision to showcase them all keeps you on your toes.
They’re at their best with possibly the one consistent element through most of the pieces, which is their ability to craft these gentle low-key moments of profound experimental warmth. They love crackles and fuzz, at times their music just lulls beneath thin spooling electrics, offering a warm feeling of nostalgia, yet it also serves a greater purpose too, particularly when the electrics begin engaging compositionally with the musical elements. And it’s developments like this that are key to Whorls, these gentle moments where production and composition intersect and become one. It also highlights the level of detail at play here, with the duo clearly relishing in micro timbres and tiny gestures. There are multiple layers, multiple levels to Whorls, and they’re all grist for the compositions; music, sound design, sound art, experimental electrics, production techniques, errors, feedback systems, field recordings – they’re all tools, all ingredients for this incredible and compelling tapestry of sound.
Aside from a couple of moments that seem designed to tear you from this world, with a few jarring moments of feedback, you could describe Whorls as a kind of seductive experimentalism, the duo displaying not only their delight in unfamiliar extended compositional techniques, but also in warm highly textural sonic worlds. Usually mutually exclusive, it’s a further demonstration of what a rare and considered collaboration this duo is.
A Closer Listen
Tim Catlin & Machinefabriek‘s third collaboration is also their first in four years. The gap in time is clearly responsible for a shift in sound. Whorls is as dynamic and exciting as Patina was soft and calm. When the latter was released in 2011, the label called it a work of “gentle nuance”. The new work is more an album of powerful contrast. The return to shorter works (the last album included two side-long halves) recalls the duo’s 2009 debut, Glisten, but that one was even quieter, content for the most part to luxuriate in the dust of sunbeams, save for the finale of “Haul”.
The compositional method is the only constant. First, Catlin records the initial sounds (guitar on Glisten, plus sitar on Patina, plus piano and zither on Whorls). Then Machinefabriek (Rutger Zuydervelt) moves the whole thing around and adds new layers (similar to his technique on the recently reviewed Sneeuwstorm).
This knowledge still doesn’t prepare the listener for what amounts to a Whitman box of sound. The opening track, “Sweep”, is just one drum beat away from being a dance track; and the clicking of “Sloth” might lend itself well to a remix. This isn’t new territory for Zuydervelt, but it’s new territory for this collaboration. Both artists have stepped up their game, Catlin by adding more instruments to his palette, and Machinefabriek by expanding the boundaries. By the time “Sweep” ends, it has gone through various stages of permutation, incorporating bowed string, deep bass and a heart monitor pulse. The pace may be sloth-like, but the harmonic chord struck at 2:10 is an alarm. This is not background music; the harshest tracks, “Chirn” and “Yowl”, offer moments of pure abrasion.
The more one listens, the more one thinks of the early days of Machinefabriek, which were dominated by a variety of CD3″ releases. One never knew what to expect from each release, and while the same holds true for Machinefabriek’s albums today, one seldom encounters such variety within an album. The closest corollary may be 2007’s Weleer, a collection of disparate tracks gathered under the same roof. “Volary” pings like sonar; “Flotsam” crashes like waves. This latter piece, one of the album’s best, includes moments of void within the cacophony: negative space in relief to the outer chaos.
“Nocturne” contains the sound of what may be church bells, surrounded by static. The pleasure is in the curiosity. By taking familiar sounds and cloaking them in the unfamiliar, Machinefabriek creates sonic mysteries. It would be interesting to learn if Catlin were still able to recognize his own samples in the wake of their treatments. Only on occasion does a contribution come through unscathed: the acoustic guitar of “Koan” is a curtain being drawn back, conjuring comparison to the opening lines of Yes’ “Roundabout”. What was progressive then is no longer progressive now; if anything, Whorls is the new progressive: sound molded until it no longer resembles its original shape.
Oh boy. With all the times I spelled his name wrong (and I am deeply sorry, but I am sure it adds to my sloppy reputation), it's impossible to find all the reviews I did of the music of Tim Catlin - right spelling. 'Whorls' is his third release with Rutger Zuydervelt, also known as Machinefabriek, and I reviewed the first one, 'Glisten' (Vital Weekly 706) but perhaps I didn't review 'Patina', which was released in 2011. Catlin uses prepared guitars to which he attached machinery and have them played mechanically, but these days also extends that to a bowed piano, metals, vibrissa, zither and the cover mentions also acoustic synth guitar and avian guitar. A recording of this Catlin sends to Zuydervelt for 'editing, processing and additional sounds'. What Zuydervelt doesn't do is add a whole bunch of sound effects onto a single layer of sound and create a powerful drone, but in stead creates many layers of sound and plays around with them in a rather playful manner. One of the great things about this album is that there are no less than fourteen individual pieces. One could easily think this one of those 'one track per side' kind of things, but it's not really. Zuydervelt creates rather short and to the point pieces, in what seems to be his current interest of doing this in a collage like style. There is lot of attention to detail and everything sings around, drops in and out, while some elements continue. Just as easily as you could say this is just two long pieces of collage(d) music perhaps. Unlike 'Glisten', which seemed a more ambient outing, this one has a more varied touch, even with dashes of mechanically organised rhythms, giving this a slightly pop-like tone, occasionally. This I thought is an excellent record. It's highly varied, short and to the point, great small compositions, lots of different approaches and yet, it all makes sense as simply an excellent record. One of the best collaborative records I heard from Machinefabriek and no doubt thanks to a mighty varied input from Catlin.