At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Falkirk’s iron and steel industry bore the town three primary exports: carronades, pillar boxes, and buses. Though a great deal of historical literature exists on the development of these robust structures, there is little agreement as to why the three exports arose as organically as they did, but no one seemed to question. In this sense, the art of Falkirk’s more recent export, musician and filmmaker Adam Stafford, is just another clash of absurdities that nonetheless works with beautiful precision; though it harbours no clear entry points for explosive shells, it may very well be discussed in canonical terms.
Like his minimalist forebears – Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Ingram Marshal – Stafford’s new experimental musical direction is both deeply engaging and perpetually distracting, built around frenetic, motorik layers of sound that somehow coalesce into a peaceful whole, an imperfectly modulated choir of howls. If we are to speak of it in ambient terms, it is perhaps borne of the airport itself rather than an escape from its noise. Noise – in the traditional sense of organic, unplanned sounds, incidentals, background harmonics – is a focal point, not something to be masked or shunned.
This is the starting pistol for ‘Zero Disruption’, the latest track from the forthcoming album Fire Behind the Curtain, named from a self-help relaxation CD that instructs the listener to seek “comfortable surroundings with zero disruption.” Stafford elaborates: “It is my attempt at putting the influence of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint to bed. It was devised as an exercise in playing between the notes and layering jerky guitar figures in a staccato style. The voices are meant to sound like alarms going off, and the track as a whole is based on panic and auditory hallucinations.”
As a species which now falls asleep to the artificial sound of roaring fires or thunderstorms, we are perhaps better accustomed to the satiating experience of controlled panic than we care to admit. Not everything has to be harmonious. “I’ve always preferred instrumental music to the more traditional song-based, structured form, even though most of my output over the years has consisted of the latter,” Stafford elaborates. “I would rather experiment in building a piece with emotion, texture and tonality rather than wheel out all of the old clichés of unrequited love in lyrical form… I really just wanted to present music in which the listener can project their emotional content/context onto.”
Fire Behind the Curtain is drenched in history, but it is also a personal exorcism and a testimony of Adam Stafford’s internal struggle with anxiety and severe depression. ‘Penshaw Monument’ is a ritual of chants and rhythms recorded in one live take, a personal purging of bad spirits and an attempt to break through the constraints of language. The first disc of the album, as the artist explains it, a “very loose concept album in terms of its themes of autumn, the entropic process of the season’s end, cremation – after death and (on ‘The Witch Hunt’) during the witch trials of the 17th Century, when mass femicide was designed and executed by pious men who hid their sadism and repression behind a cloak of tenuous morality.” Elsewhere, Adam Stafford battles toxic masculinity on ‘Museum of Grinding Dicks’ (“a comment on the misogyny and naked aggressive ambition that permeates every aspect of our culture”) as well as his own depression on ‘Invade They Say Fine’ (“the monolithic sax-slab is analogous to the attack of fear and dread I experience.”).
Where beauty does arrive, it is more often in the sweetness of the arrangements. “Pete Harvey (Modern Studies) arranged sinuous string sections that elevate these compositions to a different level”, Stafford recalls. “During the preparation process, we discussed what the strings would do on the tracks – allegro here, some pizzicato there – but nothing prepared me for the sheer astounding arrangements that Pete turned up with on the day of recording.” Sweetness and hot, dark nights of the soul collide at regular intervals resulting in a stirring, troubling premonition.
In Adam Stafford’s world nothing is smoothed over, but thrown together in the spirit of industry, like a real town that builds pillar boxes and cannons; like real art that builds ecstasy out of torrential anxiety. Real art, which only sets four corners or a metronome to then immediately begin fussing at its edges, testing its mise en scène for weak spots, permeations, hard borders that might belie soft openings. Guitar riffs stacked on top of each other, layers of strings, layers of wordless vocals, each new overdub testing how high this tower will reach before it all comes toppling down, and perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps we should start building things from scratch again.
Fire Behind The Curtain is out on Song, By Toad on 4th May 2018.
Donate to IndiePulse Music Magazine’s Academic and Music Education Scholarship Program HeartBeat4Kids
IndiePulse Music Magazine creates Scholarships to help Youth In Need of assistance to complete their educational goals and stay in school.