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Escape Mechanism – [Album]

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Saturday, 25 October 2008

In order to understand what one is listening to when attempting to decode the megalithic assembly that is Jonathan Nelson’s newest effort under the Escape Mechanism moniker, one has to understand what the difference is between a musician and an artist of music. It sounds like it should be the height of differentiating the most miniscule of minutiae, but really the difference is enormous. The musician is bound by the constraints of the structure that any musical instrument implies; as soon as one picks up an instrument which has the sole purpose of making music (a guitar, a French horn, an oboe, glockenspiel – any sort of traditional instrument at all), one endeavours to be a musician. An artist of music is more preoccupied with the creation and assembly of sound to create something that appears musical, but was not originally intended that way. Confused? Look at it this way: Angus Young is a musician – a guitarist – and, with his Gibson SG, has written some pretty incredible songs. He’s a great musician and that term implies that he manipulates his instrument as it was intended. Conversely, Tom Waits might walk into the same room that Young just occupied, pick up the guitar and start banging on the walls with it; then bang on the same walls with his hands, make some rhythmic utterings with his mouth and record it all. When he’s done, he  goes back and reassembles what he has recorded into an intelligible form – but obviously it didn’t start out that way. What Nelson does as Escape Mechanism is even more basic, yet more complicated at the same time; using his computer as a sort of digital scalpel, he dissects audio sources not his own into tiny pieces and the reassembles them into something that isn’t exactly a collage, nor is it a mosaic – but rather as dialogues that happen to also be musical in dynamic.

Just reading it on paper, the obvious (or a computer screen), the obvious comparison that those reading would make is that (Emphasis Added) could be similar to the audio Pop Art terrorism of Negativland but, in listening, it becomes obvious that such a comparison would be cursory ad dismissive at best. Rather than shock listeners in the name of education with obvious and garish sloganeering as Negativland does, Escape Mechanism uses a similar approach to relate to the world and articulate Nelson’s process of creation. In that way, the opening track, “Change,” almost plays like an apology – Nelson knows that this creative approach might be difficult for listeners to digest and so apologizes while simultaneously spoon-feeding listeners to get them acclimated to what’s happening here and what to expect.

The combination of “Change” and the two short interludes that proceed it set the precedents for what Nelson has in store for listeners on (Emphasis Added): a series of assemblages that attempt to explain the world using a series of voices (check out the social criticism of “What’s Happening”) and include seconds-long snippets of dialogue and melodies from every corner of the aural spectrum including Northern Exposure, Dennis Miller, Simon & Garfunkel, Little Richard, Sha Na Na, Suzanne Vega and more. Some would call this earnest delivery confusing at worst and very derivative (of Girl Talk) at best, but neither statement is accurate; because the parts overlay and rely upon each other to make sense (as any conversation does – unless one is talk to himself), leaving one voice out would cause the whole house of cards to collapse in upon itself. At the same time, because so many of the voices are easily recognizable, it gives the record a universal quality and thus gives listeners the impression that, because the samples tend to finish each other’s sentences, there is a common link between all of the individuals included.

By the time “Q & A” bubbles to the surface in an attempt to close the dialogue of (Emphasis Added) but instantly begins to track back on itself and thus spiral into oblivion (at about nine minutes long, it’s the longest collapse into static noise ever committed to tape in memory), both the creator and listeners are spent and forced out the door with heads spinning; confused at what they’ve just borne witness to. Even repeated listens make it no clearer, yet you find yourself going back over and over to simply enjoy the nuance of the conversation if not figure it out and make sense of it.

What Jonathan Nelson has created here is a new and totally unique form of audio sculpture totally unlike anything that I’ve ever reviewed before. It’s compelling because listeners find themselves needing to know where it goes next, but also has some staying power because listeners find themselves tracking back to see what they might have missed.

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