When I was quite young I remember my mother taking me to the Science Centre that had a ‘3D’ exhibit on. Essentially the idea was that you could go around with your own VHS and film yourself in various vignettes with accompanying backgrounds and scripts. I still remember the thrill of trying out as many scenarios as I could. Steve Roden’s new album Berlin Fields, has this same effect on me – that feeling of being artificially transported somewhere and getting to experience yourself in many quick scenarios, and then, just when all of your senses are getting comfortable with something – you get moved on to something else. Roden acts as the travel guide, with the album coming in the form of one forty minute-long piece that moves through some very varied sections.
Compiled from unprocessed field recordings from Roden’s most recent trips to Berlin, Helsinki and Paris – from, as he describes, public spaces, natural landscapes, airports and apartments – the album starts off at the ocean with birds and what sounds like a foghorn on loop, with echoing conversations in the background. Just before you can properly get accustomed to this space, Roden moves you quickly to some more sinister environments – its not long before we’re in a room with a creepy music box desperately trying to squeeze out a tune.
All of a sudden, you’re in a rainforest and hearing all types of human activity accompanied by a metallic tribal percussive beat. Demonstrating his skill, Roden follows this up with a section of an old man singing a gentle nursery rhyme; but rather than sound intimate, it sounds chillingly artificial when accompanied by the sound of people walking and cameras taking photos, like some artefact in a museum of some unknowable world. Although there will quite often be numerous sounds at any one time, Roden always puts a particular sound at the foreground which will be strongly contextualised by what’s going on in the background.
From there the record moves into more disorienting and unfamiliar – but no less thrilling – territory. We hear a plane coming in and wind chimes going wild, like there’s a storm coming. At other times we hear church bells that are being overtaken with a sea of ominous electronic static. It’s all pretty disparate, with unclear links; quite often a section will be cut off abruptly. This is all part of what makes it so fascinating; it’s great to listen to, and quite stunning in its visceral nature and intimacy.
Roden has created a playful and captivating travelogue; while it all feels unreal just like that 3D exhibit years ago, your senses are having too much fun to care and are just happy to go along for the ride.