Field Works : Stations

Field Works Stations review

Field Works is a very special project. Masterminded by producer Stuart Hyatt, Field Works debuted with a massive 6-album/7xLP box set called Metaphonics, with each of the individual records within the set available as a separate release. This box not only constituted one of the best releases of 2018 (in my personal top five) but also one of the most deliberately cognizant works of ambient and field recorded music. Each record was themed on a specific and often quite granular element, be it field recordings of a state fair over numerous years, field recordings of a stream from its head down miles and miles of its course, or evocative textures meant to recall the deserts and valleys of southern Texas, featuring work by Hyatt himself as well as a slew of collaborators that reads as a veritable who’s who of contemporary electronic and experimental music. That initial wild burst of work has been expanded with a number of volumes added to the set, including one themed on recordings of the echolocations of a bat species endemic to Indiana as well as a song-set themed around pan-cultural appreciation of forests. Stations, the 10th installment in the ongoing series, is themed around recordings of the vibration of the earth itself translated into audible tones from which a series of recordings were built up.

The promise of this kind of enterprise is often less in the exact music itself and more in how the conceptual arc situates the music, grounds us in the body, the here and now. What was so special about those earliest releases of this group was in how they isolated down to specifical granular places in space and time an event that was brought to spiritual heights. The material reality of the doldrums of semirural life give way to a witnessing of the fundamental force behind those elements and experiences, the sense of wonder and eternity of a carnival or the otherworld presence of bats. It is an explication of a phenomenology, a meditation on an object or place until the materiality cracks open and reveals these splintering shards of light of the pure experience of the thing. I mention it in these terms because while those earliest recordings had a firmness of conceptual arc that made those records feel so transcendent and pure, the past couple Field Works records, this one included, have strayed into more abstract territory which have rendered them somewhat less effective and resonant (ironic here, given the recordings are of the resonance of the earth itself).

As with many installments of this project, Stations is available with a book that includes essays which help situate the project and, that in hand, this project may read a bit better. As it stands, while the music is haunting and beautiful, draping like sheets of layered voices and drones and hums, the precise why-ness of the record remains elusive in a way the earlier installments of this project did not. The fact of the formation of these pieces around real sound samples of the resonance of the earth provides a strong initial start, but it’s hard to parse what elements are drawn specifically from those recordings, rendering that fact a bit more abstract than palpable. The idea of human voices in a choir harmonizing with those drones is a beautiful one and here does in fact produce shockingly gorgeous music, but Field Works has always been as much about the conceptual, environmental and sociological weight of the concept as it has been the pure sound and here it feels like the intent is lost somewhat in a murky of somewhat hippyish sentimentality rather than a clarity of purpose.

Thankfully, these are mere conceptual critiques, ones that place it definitively below the earlier recordings of this project in terms of some abstract artfulness, while musically this remains equal or perhaps superior to those earlier works. Because as much as the firmness of the conceptual ground of this project seems to have been subtly slipping, the sonic force of Field Works has only improved over time. Ultrasonics was a transformation of the sounds of bats into abstract techno and ambient music that had real pulse and life; Cedars, as much as its abstract development of the notion of forests was a clear extrapolation of similar abstractions on Glen Rose Formation‘s exploration of the geography of Texas, was the most shockingly beautiful record to date from the project, replacing a discrete and graspable conceptual core for the most resonant and beautiful work the project has laid to tape. Stations doesn’t quite reach the same sonic highs as Cedars but nonetheless produce a spell-binding song suite that passes over the first disc like cascading sheets of light or the cross-interference of waves on a lake under light rain. The picture is perhaps less distinct, but this is still wonderfully imagistic music, rife with the experience of witness, even if what is being witnessed is substantially more abstract.

What’s more, the second disc of this project returns to the collaborative/compilation nature of the early records under the Field Works name. Each movement of the suite comprising the first disc is here remixed by a bevy of producers, from Deantoni Parks to Amulets to our own beloved Ben Chatwin (a figure I’ve favorably reviewed in the past). Where the first disc feels at times as though it strives to compete but fails to live up to the heights of Floating Points’ recent masterful Promises, this second disc and its more collaborative approach feels at once to more obviously fulfill the conceptual thread of this record as well as to produce more immediately catching music. This is the type of ambient electronic music that bubbles right up under the ear, darting in and out of focus and attention, tickling and teasing you with implications of images before submersing itself again behind the psychic veil. For those that meditate to records, this is precisely the material that produces the most active subliminal thought, feeling like a churning oar in the seas of imagination. It’s wickedly beautiful stuff with a myriad display of colors from the various contributors, all of which manage as well to sit nicely next to each other as a coherent work as much as compelling pieces on their own.

Either disc on its own would have left this record feeling perhaps a bit undercooked and underdeveloped, missing out on the full promise of what makes Field Works as an umbrella meta-project so special and interesting. Together, they both elaborate on each other and dance around the central thesis of this record in a way that brings an otherwise abstruse and sometimes totally opaque concept into something approaching a tangible place, all while producing tremendously beautiful and engaging electronic music.

Label: Temporary Residence

Year: 2022

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