Experimental is a term I’ve always struggled with in a musical context. Experiment tends to infer a trying out of new things in order for them to be developed for the real deal sometime down the track. If an artist decides to release some work, then, by definition, isn’t that actually the real deal, not an experiment? Notwithstanding current trends in the noise and improv underground, to my thinking, the historical use of the term is often a method used by the mainstream end of the market to undermine the value of work not fitting into its own parameters. Epistrophy At Utopia could be a case in point. Its foundation of glitchy pulses and textures, its mix of disparate timbres and even genres and the sheer scope of its reach will no doubt have it rendered in musical shorthand as ‘experimental’. But the album is so well resolved, so purposeful and so exhilarating that it must be considered a defining statement, not a tentative investigation.
The three artists who have collaborated on the album are Spyros Polychronopoulos (Spyweirdo), who supplies the electronics and processing, acoustics professor and jazz musician John Mourjopoulos and jazz and improv artist Floros Floridis. The latter two provide various free jazz improvisations, which tend to the minimal, moodier end of the spectrum, on piano, double bass, clarinet, oboe and saxophone amongst other things, while Spyweirdo pulls all the pieces together and meshes them with his own brand of electronics into their completed forms. The opener is an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Epistrophy’, which sets the scene for the album – newly recorded acoustic instruments clashing with samples which are pushed and pulled to subtle but catching effect and masterful programming. There’s humour – ‘Ethnic Music Cleansing’ opens with two minutes of scrawled, disfigured big band samples trying desperately to escape the glitches they are being processed through before a sturdy drum loop leads to some frantic double bass and piano runs. It finishes with the sounds of a muted cotton field spiritual being hummed, again losing the fight against the digital manipulation. ‘At’s is a haunting mix of oboe and bass heavy, almost unrecognisable guitar samples. ‘Raymond Bound’ is an ode to electronic music pioneer, instrument inventor and cartoon soundtrack composer Raymond Scott. It is as jaunty as you might expect, though a dark undercurrent keeps it congruous with the rest of the album and turns it into a real highlight. Closer ‘The Letter After Omega’ is a consummation of all that has gone before and brings the mood down a few notches, while being more overtly electronic based. It is followed by a couple of minutes’ silence and then an unlisted dark drone and glitch based piece to hammer the point home.
This is quite a remarkable album. That it’s creators have been working in their various fields since the late 70s is apparent in the maturity and focus of the work, while there is a refreshing newness to the sounds which, inspite of the obvious use of homage, do not rely on nostalgia for their potency.