Recording of June 2013: Already Drowning

Aidan Baker: Already Drowning
Gizeh GZH 043CD/LP (CD/LP). 2013. Aidan Baker, prod.; Baker, Jonathan Demers, engs.; James Plotkin, mastering. ADD/AAA. TT: 54:54
Performance *****
Sonics **½

Though classically trained in flute and exceedingly capable on a wide range of other instruments, including drums, trombone, piano, and various electronics, Aidan Baker is best known for his work on acoustic and electric guitar. A perusal of his unofficial discography on reveals some 80 full-length albums, and another couple dozen singles, EPs, and compilation credits. Beyond merely prolific, Baker's recorded output is profound—and nearly impossible to chart. In 2012 alone he released at least six full-length albums: Document: Eurotour 2011, a live set with experimental guitarist Eric Quach; Smudging, a collection of space-rock instrumentals performed with Richard Baker (no relation); Nihtes Niht, a collaboration with German drone act Troum; Variations on a Loop, comprising two extended pieces of processed and looped guitar; Origins & Evolutions, a set of four long ambient pieces for 15 guitars; and The Spectrum of Distraction, a 97-track, two-CD set of guitar-based pieces with contributions from 18 different drummers, designed to be played randomly.

But don't write off Baker as merely another noisemaker or prankster academic. It would be safer, or more accurate, to describe him as restless, thirsty, searching. He has also released albums of dark folk songs (Only Stories), shoegaze pop (Songs of Flowers & Skin), and deeply affecting jazz (Still Life). And while Baker is most commonly associated with the experimental scenes of Toronto, where he was born, and Berlin, where he currently resides, he's equally comfortable composing for and performing with contemporary classical ensembles as diverse as the Penderecki String Quartet, Sinfonietta Riga, and the Monday Morning Singers. He shows no signs of letting up: Already Drowning, his third release of this still-young year, is more coherent, thrilling, and purely beautiful than anything else he's accomplished so far.

The album was inspired by various fairytales about female water spirits, and comprises seven songs, each over six minutes long and each featuring a different female singer. Baker explained via e-mail: "My interest in fairytales largely arose from writers like Angela Carter, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Donald Barthelme, who use the fairytale to reference the intertextuality central to the postmodernist conceit that all texts throughout history (and the writers writing, the readers reading) are interrelated and interwoven."

The lyrics for Already Drowning were influenced by several books Baker had read over the course of a couple years, specifically A.S. Byatt's Possession, Philip K. Dick's The Dark Haired Girl, and Anna Kavan's Ice. As in Baker's life, the music on Already Drowning never quite stops: Each song gradually fades or gently morphs into the next, making it nearly impossible to divorce one from another. Variation comes in Baker's choices of instruments, his expert use of texture and dynamics, the distinct timbre of each song's voice, and the language in which his words are sung or read.

"Mein Zwilling, Mein Verlorener" combines carefully plucked acoustic guitar, decorative flute, and accordion, its bellows slowly and evenly pulled, to create a gently swaying backdrop for Joanna Kupnicka's voice, which recalls that of Nico in its melancholic depth and warmth but is softer, smoother, and far more comforting. This moves seamlessly into "Tout Juste Sous la Surface, Je Guette," a brooding and unhurried piece for guttural cello; weeping violin; several tracks of electric guitar plucked, scraped, banged, and otherwise skillfully manipulated; showers of thick, glistening distortion; and Geneviève Castrée's voice, which vacillates as required between childlike and wraithlike, to best complement the song's crests and troughs. "30 Days/30 Nights" brings to mind the exquisite gloom of an Arab Strap song—cold, misty, and heavy with desperation; "Mélusine" is more disconcerting, more volatile, with its multi-tracked reverse-echo guitar, skittering rhythms, and indistinct vocals; and the raunchy, lusty jazziness of "Ice" brings to mind Talk Talk's best and most seductive work, this due in part to Laura Rodie's alto and soprano saxophones, and in part to Liz Hysen's uncommonly sensual voice.

But Already Drowning's most memorable moments come from two vocalists. Clara Engel provides a characteristically powerful performance in the title track, and Carla Bozulich (Geraldine Fibbers, Evangelista) closes the set with a disturbing combination of clearly delivered lines and tape-processed groans, cries, and gibberish that recall scenes from The Exorcist. Both tracks benefit from Baker's trademark use of texture, tone, and drone; the depth, detail, and sheer force of sound are remarkable.

Still, this is by no means a traditional audiophile recording. Baker and his recording engineers, Jonathan Demers and James Plotkin, have managed to carefully balance detail and transparency with extreme density and congestion. Two-thirds of the way into the title track, some audiophiles will begin to wonder if they've purchased a bad pressing, or if their cartridge needs a new stylus. No need to worry: Intense distortion is as much a part of Baker's sonic palette as is the airy roundness of a flute or the slender, long-tailed grace of a violin. Both the five-star Performance rating and 2.5-star Sonics rating were given by John Atkinson, who feels the mix suffers from excessive sparkle and "life" added to cymbals. For better or worse, I don't hear what JA hears. Plotkin says there was "a good amount of high-frequency attenuation and general EQ balancing done during mastering," and admits that the midrange was, at times, judiciously boosted to compensate for some scooping in preliminary mixes.

In any case, whether played at high or low volume, enjoyed through a cost-no-object system or inexpensive earbuds, Aidan Baker's Already Drowning is singularly compelling, vastly rewarding, and nearly impossible to ignore.—Stephen Mejias

Stream Already Drowning, in its entirety, here.

R Browne's picture

It would be nice to have that or album/song previews included, when possible, with other record reviews. 

TigerSoul's picture

A lovely will o' the wisp for the ears. I love the suggestive darkness that never quite materializes but floats just within our grasp. I also love it when a musical project comes across as effortless but also intensely deliberate at the same time.

klosterman's picture

I downloaded this in toto after reading this review. It's spellbinding.