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Music Review: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

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Four Shibusa is Monty Adkins’ latest release for the Sheffield-based Audiobulb label, and it may well be his finest yet. The artist has been working in the electroacoustic music field for some time now, and is in fact a professor at England’s University of Huddersfield. His previous album, Fragile.Flicker.Fragment (2011) was pretty incredible. In fact, it has been nominated in the ‘Album of the Year’ category at the 2012 Qwartz Awards, Paris. As good as that recording was however, Four Shibusa is even more impressive.

As the title indicates, the disc contains four tracks, or Shibusa. The word “shibusa” is Japanese in origin, and describes the inherent simplicity and beauty in everyday objects. It is the perfect conceptual starting point for these pieces, which are the result of a year-long collaboration with the visual artist Pop Dickens that Monty Adkins has been involved in.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “electroacoustic music,” it is somewhat broad, and covers a wide range of sound experimentation. Some of the forms include musique concrete, computer music, tape music, basically electronic music of all sorts. Unlike last year’s Fragile.Flicker.Fragment however, Professor Adkins has included a great deal of traditional instrumentation in the music of Four Shibusa. The results are spellbinding.

The most notable addition to Monty’s musical palette are the clarinets of Jonathan Sage and Heather Roche. There can be something especially lonely about the sound of the clarinet, and this quality is utilized to great effect in throughout. “Sendai Threnody” (9:00) opens Four Shibusa on a soothing and somewhat contemplative note. The clarinet tones provide a perfect compliment to Monty’s atmospheric bed of sound here. It is a marvelous combination.

“Entangled Symmetries” (11:01) is next, and here the clarinets take something of a backseat to the electronic ambience Monty creates. I first happened upon the Audiobulb label in a quest to find new sources for electronic, and in particular, ambient music. Fragile, Flicker, Fragment was an exceptionally brilliant discovery. With “Entangled Symmetries,” Monty again pursues this avenue, but his work is never predictable. While the piece is for the most part quite soothing, he adds a few left-of-center moments (which almost sound like static), just to keep us on our toes.

If I were forced to choose a favorite track of the Four Shibusa, it would be the third, “Kyoto Roughcut” (14:35). While the ambient electroacoustic mood is continued, the blend achieved by Monty Adkins, Heather Roche, and Jonathan Sage on this composition is otherworldly. Monty’s electronics are front and center, but the quiet, soothing mood of “Entangled Symmetries” has been upended this time around. There is much more of a “tale” being told here, with a very definite beginning, middle, and end.

The most prominent use of the clarinets are as bookends during this piece. The “middle” (if you will) is where Professor Adkins’ machines are most prominent, taking the listener on an adventure that is at once dark, and exhilarating. One of the recurring motifs (to these ears at least) is of water. The gentle give and take, especially towards the end, are very effective, almost like the waves of the ocean. This is a most illuminating piece of music in every way.

I mentioned the use of clarinets as bookends during “Kyoto Roughcut,” and that characterization applies to the programming of Four Shibusa as a whole as well. During the final “Permutations” (8:30), much like the opening “Sendai Threnody,” they are utilized much more significantly than on “Entangled Symmetries,” and “Kyoto Roughcut.” Monty’s more ambient use of electronics to provide the most advantageous atmosphere for the woodwinds here strikes the perfect balance.

The Audiobulb label is dedicated to “exploratory electronic music,” and Monty Adkins is a master of the form. Adding clarinets to his music certainly takes things in new directions, although it is still quite recognizable. Many elements come into play besides what one might consider the “soothing” ambient tones as well. Monty Adkins has developed one of the most unique and compelling albums I have heard this year. For more information, check out the Audiobulb site.

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