Embla Quickbeam, Natalia Beylis, and Neil Campbell – House Sparrow Settle Back (2019, Crow Versus Crow)
As the end o’ summer malaise sets in and the engorged bleakness of late capitalist modernity™ becomes even harder to ignore – and just in time for all your Autumnal Equinox rites and rituals – West Yorkshire’s Crow Versus Crow bestows upon the unsuspecting another auricular assemblage aka a fresssssh C45 of tunes, containing concoctions by Embla Quickbeam, Natalia Beylis, and Neil ‘Don’t call me Neve’ Campbell. Two sides, two duos, two performances, in two different cities. Enter House Sparrow Settle Back.
Side A, (‘Settle Sparrow’) features Quickbeam and Beylis extemporizing in Todmorden in early May of this year (2019). In their roughly half hour set, the duo generate a soundscape that would make an excellent sonic companion to Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Nights or act as a fine alternative to listening to Jez Riley French on LSD. One is engulfed in a swirling, fragmentary journey, encountering splintered bits of conversation, gurgling tape noise, flowing streams, and varying modalities of bird song along the way. Invocations of memory, the (sur)real, and (dis)location (both of the self and of the self amidst the vanishing ecologies and spaces not traditionally inhabited by humans…two for one!) all permeate a deeply engrossing performance.
Side B, (‘House Back’, also recorded in early May) features Campbell and Beylis tape slinging in Leeds in a performance that manages to come out feeling simultaneously more and less solemn than the number on the album’s reverse. Whilst Side A affords the listener with an opportunity to consider the body in space and to contemplate largely internal phenomena (memory and subjectivity), Side B dispenses with the contemplative ballyhoo and instead opts to examine extraneous stimuli: the body is acted upon, in ways that are both banal and unnerving. The listener is prodded forth by the lurching pulse of a phantom tempo, ever-present in the performance. The free-floating conversational fragments and sense of psychedelic eavesdropping are replaced by the act of dictation. The directive voice, ever at the ready to command, rebuke or advertise, is at the fore. One especially salient and humorous moment is audible when the artists employ a recording of a machine-like auctioneer –one of capital’s most wanton and yet most farcical appropriations of the voice. Curiously, Side B elects to include the crowd’s applause at the terminus of the performance, where the Side A does not. This listener’s immediate reaction interpreted this decision as a breaking of the fourth wall – and in making that fracture audible – an invitation to the listener to shatter the ‘homogeneous empty time’ (following Walter Benjamin) and fatalism implied by any sense of tempo, real or otherwise perceived.*
All the waxing feel-o-sofa-cull aside,
if boney Sony didn’t have a vice fucking grip on the Clash’s work, Crow Versus Crow would be wise to expropriate the title of the group’s 1980 tune ‘Hitsville UK’ and swiftly endow this appellation on Halifax as the burg’s civic title. Another great release sure to appeal to lovers of everything from Crass (namely, ‘Reality Asylum’ from Feeding of the 5000 or Stations of the Crass) to Gabie Strong’s recent work (notably, Incantations, Vol. 1).
* A number of scholars, hacks, and observers have written on the radical potential of improvisation as an artistic practice.(See, David M. Bell, “Improvisation as Anarchist Organization,” Ephemera 14, no. 4 (November 2014): 1009-1030; Bruce Russell “What is Free?a free noise manifesto.” In Left-Handed Blows Writings on Sound 1993-2009, 21-25. Auckland: Clouds; et al.)
Regardless of a given artist’s (public) politics, an underlying radicalism remains manifestly present in the practice of free improvisation and in the rejection of formalism, structure, consonance, &c. As ‘House Back’ was recorded (ostensibly for posterity and/or dissemination) an additional recycling of radicality takes place. As aesthete extraordinaire and Deutsche-Francophile Wally Benjamin says:
‘mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility […and] the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics’. (Benjamin 1969, 6)
By making use of the radical potentiality of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and thus making the May performances accessible and contemplatable – errr just plain enjoyable – to a slew of listeners from Todmorden to Tikrit to Texas, these talented duos promise to send us careening towards that savoury jeztzeit which Benjamin believed art was capable fostering.