Noveller: Desert Fires

Sarah Lipstate is a Brooklyn-based guitarist and filmmaker. She creates sounds and images, and records under the name Noveller. Desert Fires, Noveller’s full-length follow-up to 2009’s No Fun Records’ debut, Red Rainbows, is one of three Noveller releases I enjoyed in 2010 and one of the very few compact discs I purchased this year. I purchased it because I had to have it; and, though this summer heard talk of an LP release, as far as I know, the LP never came to be—a shame because Lipstate’s music craves the sound and feel of vinyl.

The name Desert Fires paints images of a heavy, relentless sun crouched over arid, barren land, but this is in fact night music, persistently pulsing with water and life. Desert Fires, one could almost imagine, should not be played during the day at all. It’s almost enough to put out the sun, to blow out the sun as though the sun were a candle, to wash out the sun as though Desert Fires were the massive ocean bending into the sky, or two nuns on the seashore, mesmerized, making it happen by not making it happen. This is night music, but the sky is clear and full of stars, so many stars, there are almost more stars than sky, the sky is overwhelmed by stars and a crazy white moon that washes away the few thin clouds to send a cool light through the curtains of your listening room windows and to fall on everything around, and on everything around, just like that, just like that.

Photo: Chris Habib

These particular tones are made by a woman’s hands, there can be no doubt about it. These are not the tones of Pitch Black Star Spangled or of Returnal, for instance. The sound of Desert Fires is consistently good throughout, though not as expansive or as explosive as either of those fine albums; Desert Fires’s images are far more content to develop slowly and linger around the center of the stage. And, for the most part, the individual tracks of Desert Fires are more willing to take on the shape of discrete songs, less like sections of a long, continuous piece. Even in denser, more abstract moments, such as those heard in “Kites Calm Desert Fires,” Lipstate remains much truer to the familiar sound of the electric guitar than does, say, Stian Westerhus. Lipstate’s drones are lighter, easier to handle, hold, and digest, more silver than gold, more blue than black, more treble than bass; this is a Fender Jazzmaster, for sure.

Desert Fires marks a departure from the sometimes invigorating and sometimes frightening noise of Red Rainbows. That album, too, is often quite lovely, but never so delicate as Desert Fires; Red Rainbows’s “St. Powers” only hints at the melody and gentleness of Desert Fires.

Listen to “Almost Alright”: A simple and pretty pattern of phased chords, fingers sweeping freely and easily across the strings, are joined by well-controlled feedback. The feedback is allowed to bloom into the space, but only so much, before being reeled back in. And then it swells and swells, while the initial pattern persists, until, at around 1:55, when all is met by a series of sliding bass notes, arching and pulling and circling, circling and pulling and arching, until somewhere around 3:30, when the repeated melody finally dies away, and until somewhere around 4:30, when the feedback dies away, and until the bass notes die away, and until we’re left with flashes of light, phasing in and out, in and out.

“Same” reminds me of something from Sonic Youth’s darkest album, NYC Ghosts and Flowers. In fact, most Noveller songs recall those of Sonic Youth, but especially the bridges of Sonic Youth songs, the lovely middles or elongated ends, the limbs, the jams. Beauty here is abbreviated by some kind of sickness, anxiety, or dread. The guitars are disturbed, the sounds unsettled. We hear this in the overall angularity, in the shift to dissonance, in the warbling conclusion.

“Toothnest” is dedicated to Chris Habib, who is also thanked in the album’s liner notes and credited as mastering engineer. I first noted Habib back in 1997 as the graphic designer behind the hypnotic artwork for Sonic Youth’s SYR series of experimental releases. There is a beautiful little melody here, a triumphant sort of melody, that grows from Lipstate’s strumming—almost a sort of surf guitar strum, but one processed through what sounds like an analog phase unit—while a steady drone anchors the piece. Toward the end, we are overcome by the strong and lovely tone of distorted notes rising and smoothly rising, as if sounded by a bow.

In “Three Windows Facing Three Doors,” which opens with a sort of Middle Eastern air, Lipstate reveals her fine touch: We hear hammer-ons and pull-offs, a strolling bass line, more of her expertly controlled feedback, and moments of heavy phase with the Rate control turned way up. And then the powerful and intoxicating churn of electricity, notes that ring like wind chimes, and the purr of distortion.

There are many moments in Desert Fires when Lipstate’s guitar takes on the tone and intensity of a section of violins playing in unison, and the opening to “Fades” offers one example. Bass notes come in and out like the gentlest waves, crystalline highs shimmer again like stars, and the overall sound pushes and pulls and churns. At around 5:13, we begin to hear four descending notes, repeating and growing longer and flashing over and over like signals in the unknown night.

Photo: Bryan Bruchman

Tomorrow, December 9th, Sarah Lipstate will perform an improvised set with Shahin Motia (Oneida/Inferior Amps) at Cinders Gallery (103 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn). Also on the bill: Bunnybrains, Shams, Disbelief Street. Currently on exhibit at Cinders Gallery is the colorful, angular work of Maya Hayuk. Doors open at 8pm. Should be awesome. For more info, visit the Noveller website or Cinders Gallery.

Drtrey3's picture

OK, that vid and music works for me! It reminds me a bit of Eno, but the end it picks up and I feel like it is just getting started.

Steve Dollar's picture

A split 12 inch with unFact (David Sims ex Jesus Lizard). Check the website. I think it's not sold out yet. Just got mine.