Lately I’ve been fascinated by the idea of recorded sound. Recordings are such a given and so ubiquitous in our modern world that we tend to gloss over their miraculous nature. Etched into the grooves of vinyl, magnetized onto tape, encoded into our CDs, recorded sounds are physical manifestations of past events that lie in wait for an amplifier to propel them through the air and into our ears. It’s kind of trippy when you think about it.
Audiophile culture is funny. These guys (almost invariably guys– but I won’t get into that here) drop thousands of dollars on high-end turntables, amps, speakers, cables, and other assorted doodads in the hopes of achieving the best sound possible, of coaxing recordings into the human eardrum with perfect resolution. But what is perfect sound? And how do you know when you’ve reached Audio Nirvana?
For many audiophiles, the gold standard is the feeling of being there, right there in the room where the sounds were recorded. If you can hear the scrapes of Dylan’s acoustic guitar strings as he moves his fingers across the fretboard, if you can hear an audience member cough during a quiet moment in Beethoven’s Fifth, then you know you’ve made it. Now you can justify the $20,000 you spent on those Bowers & Wilkins speakers– they’ve allowed you to trespass the border between past and present; they’ve become transparent conduits, disappearing into the ether and bringing about a perfect communion between you and the music.
All of which brings me to the album I’m writing about today: Songs I-V by Rocks & Waves Sound Circle. Who is Rocks & Waves Sound Circle? Their Bandcamp explains:
This album is a mystery. The little we know about it is that an outsider Swedish artist named Isaak Sundström brought it back from Mexico in 2014 after having recorded it with a local choir and an Haitian solist. They recorded together five of Isaak compositions. We don’t know the name and number of the persons singing in the choir. We don’t know how Isaak met those singers. We don’t know how long he stayed there. The only thing we’re sure of is that this album has a unique approach and sounds like nothing else.
Whoever they are and wherever they came from, Rocks & Waves Song Circle knows how to make beautiful, spiritual, uplifting, raw, primal music. I started this review with a long digression about sound quality and the feeling of presentness because this album, in a manner unlike any music I’ve heard before, will make you feel like you’re there. There’s no “studio magic” here, no high-flying pyrotechnics, no overdubbing– it just feels very direct, very present. Listening to it now, I feel transported into the large, reverb-heavy room where this was recorded (I’m guessing it was a church). And the best part of all: you don’t need expensive audio equipment to feel like you’re there.
This is devotional music, perhaps Christian or maybe that of some benign, pantheistic cult. Simple melodic lines, a choir guided by piano, guitar, tambourine, woodblocks, other percussion. Radiant voices, probably untrained in a classical sense, each one clear and distinct but blending seamlessly with the others. From the first song, where a thunderous, percussive stomp punctuates a gently undulating choral line, to the last one, where the choir repeats a mournful yet uplifting melody for 14 minutes– never getting stale, always growing organically– the Rocks & Waves Song Circle will hold you captive. The soloist’s wailing, reedy voice ties it all together like thread.
Throughout these five pieces, the Song Circle navigates between monstrous thunder and gentle quietude, exploring the gamut of human experience and emotion. This is a potent musical offering to the Divine. Thank you, Isaak Sundström, for orchestrating this moment in space and time and for recording it in a way that lets us vividly relive it again and again.
LP available for order from Light in the Attic.