In a music market driven by themed Spotify playlists and one-liner media releases, it makes business sense to keep your sound specific and niche. Choose a strategic name and promote yourself as (pick one) “brutal,” “funky,” “ethereal,” “rockin,” “chilled.” To their credit, a lot of artists are excelling at this kind of specialization lately, recognizing that music has a utility value, and the record industry has become more democratic; less a top-down network through which a select few artists may explore their every whim and pad out their egos. But still. The smart business move can be kind of boring.
I get much more excited when I hear records that drop prettiness, nastiness, energy and tranquility all together in the pressure cooker. Particularly when they eschew the established genre tropes for doing so. This is what you get with local trio Original Past Life, whose debut long-player The Times of Ceylon is out now on hellosQuare records.
OPL brings together some very seasoned and imaginative local musicians. You’ve got the ever-impressive Michael Carrati, of noise freakout group Low My Guy, among other things, handling drums and digital electronics. There’s Warwick Hall, who makes weird circuitbent instruments via CBmods, and who played in Radarmaker, and who we discovered used to live in my current bedroom, on guitars and circuits. And then there’s Adam Trainer, also of Radarmaker, Gilded, and numerous other projects on bass and analog electronics.
When I’ve seen the band perform live, it’s been in one of two modes: either gracefully working their way through well-prepared chimey melodic compositions, or else going all-out into noise improv territory. On record, they’ve made an admirable attempt to fold those these split personalities into something cohesive, though – understandably - the composed melodic side comes out as the dominant half.
The band members’ clean-guitar driven post-rock pedigree makes itself known in tracks like ‘Coral Gunning,’ and ‘Bear Hotel,’ which comfortably recall the likes of Slint and Tortoise without pushing the envelope too much. In this regard, these tracks don’t really accelerate the album’s sense of daring or surprise, though they do foster pleasant moods and grooves that help glue the whole thing together. It’s only a shame that ‘Coral Gunning’ is cued up first in the track listing - it sets the record up to be something much more familiar and straightforward than it really is.
Well, whatever: ‘China Beef Push’ blows those expectations out of the water. It flies at you with ragged, see-sawing guitar chords, grumbling noise and a fierce thumping drum pattern before overlaying stark spoken vocals, thus recalling My Disco circa ‘Little Joy’ or antecedents like Polvo. Indeed, it wanders into the “math rock” domain, but we’re talking pleasing tessellating geometries, not brain-straining calculus. The title track follows, with warm jazzy percussion, smooth descending guitar scales and clean timbres floating in air… then, the bold ‘Inuit Summer’ which delivers remarkably engrossing one-chord minimalist rock, culminating in a shoegazey wall of filth.
Following the gentle beauty of the aforementioned ‘Bear Hotel,’ we get ‘For Baby’ (how good are these song titles by the way?) which is perhaps the album’s first excursion into truly freeform noise. Several strata of distortion drone away as drums ricochet off glass vessels and dissappear into smog cloud. Eventually this all gets sucked into the orbit of a quick, insistent pulse recalling ‘70s german spacerock-cum-free jazz, but it’s an atomically unstable thing that can (and does) burst apart at any moment. ‘DL’ offers a bevy of gorgeous synth and organ sounds swirling in a twilit ambient languor, and provides one of the record's best (albeit most understated) moments. ‘Liebersham’ drifts into a cymbal-flecked kind arrythmic of pillowy dream rock, before ‘Son of Neck’ closes it out with stuttering electronics, neatly synchronised guitar/bass euphony and a clandestine breakbeat.
For the most part, The Times of Ceylon is a mellow, unobtrusive listen, which is interesting for something that’s pretty consistently peppered with noise. It made a really ear-pleasing soundtrack to my afternoon walk around Maylands, for example, but by no accounts does it belong to the glorified wallpaper school of instrumental rock: each track has personality, dynamism and unexpected bursts of experimentation and inspiration. The more aggressive tracks – especially ‘China Beef Push’ - really add to the thrill of it all, and I’d be glad to see Original Past Life explore more of this heavy sound on record. In general, it’d be exciting to hear them take more risks, having already basically perfected the chimey-melodic-drift and wild-jazzy-cacophony angles; more of these unorthodox vocals and more prominent use of contemporary digital processing techniques, to name but two options, could give the sound an evolutionary edge. But none of this is to discredit the resolved and scintillating creation that is The Times of Ceylon. It’s a beautiful, dense and restrained piece of work that lets the stifling logic of Spotify et al wash away in the rain, while spinning an engrossing internal logic of its own.