Compiling recent small-run cassette works into a luxurious double record set, Essential Anatomies represents a reunion for the duo of Colin Andrew Sheffield and James Eck Rippie. Collaborators since 2000 and friends for even longer, the four lengthy recordings here capture their Texas reunion in 2015, and with its undeniable sense of complexity and cohesion, makes it clear that they have not missed a step from their time apart. On paper, what Sheffield and Rippie do is well-trod ground: processing and recontexualization of samples and other forms of pre-recorded music. But rather than being another pair of John Oswald wannabes, they do so with distinct expertise and precision. To use a slightly abstract metaphor, they are much closer to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production, taking bits here and there and using them as elements in a much different whole, than they are Puff Daddy’s wholesale plagiarism and lack of innovation. The first of the four lengthy pieces (each around 22 to 23 minutes long) is an instant launch into the gloom that is Essential Anatomies. Chilling, piano like scrapes cut through a blackened, churning abyss of sound. Some shrill, sharp bits pierce through the darkness here and there, but the piece largely stays pleasant, even though it is rather bleak and covered in a nicely noisy sheen of fuzz. Tortured, almost melodic tones occasionally shine through a wall of ghostly drifts and heavy rumbles, at times heading toward a bit of harsh crunch, but stays in check. The melodies appear here and there again, acting as a slightly less oppressive counterpoint to the sound of decay that surrounds it. Finally, the duo end the piece on a lighter note, like sun shining through menacing gray skies. What is abundantly clear right from this start is that Sheffield and Rippie are not only extremely proficient at creating moods and space with their samplers and turntables (respectively), but also a creating dynamic compositions that are quite expansive and varied, changing often but returning to reoccurring motifs that results in a more composed, rather than improvised sound. The second piece allows a bit more of their source material to shine through, mostly in the form of piano notes and what sounds like frozen reverberations of chimes far in the distance. There is the same sense of space, but erratic loops and mangled notes result in a composition that builds in tension, eventually transitioning into haunting church organ like walls that dominate the latter half of the piece. Comparably, the second record comes across a bit less melodic and a bit more textural in the composition and structure. Part three begins with an almost percussive, crunching machinery like opening that is eventually melded with a batch of wet, almost organic like noises and radio static. Bits of recognizable music still sneak through here and there, but it is less the focus. Instead, metallic sweeps and unnatural field recording like sounds fill out the mix, though it ends on a slightly more ambient note. The final composition first is free and spacious, with some crackling tactile like elements at first, but soon it takes on a decaying sound. More organ and mangled string fanfares give a more conventional signpost here and there, but by the end the duo has already transitioned the sound to one of tension and fright, slowly evolving into an uncomfortable silence to end the record. While I do not believe I could ever manage to place the source of the sounds Colin Andrew Sheffield and James Eck Rippie utilized in making Essential Anatomies, never does it feel like the two overly processed or from their source. Meaning that, there is some of the original character left from the source material, however subtle it may be. Instead these audio building blocks are obscured but tastefully utilized to construct these atmosphere heavy works. Rippie’s day job is a sound mixer for films and television shows, which surely aided the two in creating the cinematic mood that these two records conjure up. It is that combination of sonic nuance and compositional strength and diversity that make Essential Anatomies so good.
In the moment when I’m deciding if some of my ancient vinyls should be sold or kept gathering dust and must, it’s perhaps ironic that a cassette release featuring artists working with samples and turntables as primary constituents reminded me of the evocative charm of sounds combined and deformed until near-incomprehensibility. Sheffield and Rippie operate at the margins of that critical area where the heavy processing of a given source can either increase a music’s momentum, or just turn it into commonplace. In this case, the source in question is a series of not better specified “commercial recordings” utilized in an improvising context. After the couple’s manipulations the resulting matters are reminiscent of feverish visions, unconquerable phobias, unjustified excitement. And, needless to say, they prepare us to the crash landing caused by countless broken illusions. This notwithstanding, colors and reverberations are still warm enough to build a comfortable milieu for the willing listener. There’s beauty in here, as distorted as it may be. Piano ghosts, grimy hissing and reverse harmonies form a misrepresentation of reality replete with stretched-and-warped instrumental wakes. In those places one can discover new levels of knowledge while getting completely lost in entrancement. Nothing is vulgar or overly invasive: you can choose if acting as a detached observer, or go further and being entirely seduced by the cross-pollination of reiteration and awkwardness. At any rate, a few hours with Essential Anatomies are definitely recommended.
Review of Essential Anatomies by Richard Allen, A Closer Listen
Fourteen years is a long break, but that’s how long it took Colin Andrew Sheffield & James Eck Rippie to return to the studio. Variations first appeared in 2001, followed by two sound installations; then silence. When one listens to the newly expanded edition of Variations (also on Elevator Bath), one realizes how well their music has aged. Ironically, the ancient patina unmoors the music from time. One would not be surprised to hear such a recording today. Last summer, the two returned to collaboration with new energy and new ideas, releasing what has since become the first of a series. We suspect that Essential Anatomies will wear just as well as its predecessor. The first volume delves into samples and loops, conjuring comparison to Basinski and Kirby, two contemporaries who have also remained relevant, defying the odds. This gorgeous recording drifts and curls, softly snorting like a dragon taking a break from a century’s nap. Touches of modern classicism grace the recording, lending it an air of sublimated dignity. Less instrument-based than mood-based, the two side-long tracks invite listeners to wander down painted hallways and to marvel at the fading colors. Fast-forward only a bit, to winter 2017. A second tape is released, bearing the same title but slightly different track names (the unsurprising “3” and “4”). The cover image is again fascinating, repeating the dance theme, although these are by no means dance tapes. Eugenia Loli’s vintage collages operate as visual reflections of the music, best described as abstract plunderphonics. Sheffield and Rippie use samplers and turntables to sculpt the past into new forms that defy instant categorization; suffice it to say that the old has never sounded so new. The latest edition of Essential Anatomies is thicker and crunchier than its predecessor, with sharper edges. Where “1” and “2” soothe, “3” and “4” abrade. The shifts are swifter, the notes more dissonant. On Side A, one can even hear rhythms, albeit very slow. The end of “3” bleeds a surprising amount of turmoil, which subsides slightly on “4”. The “haunted ballroom” vibe of Variations resurfaces midway through Side B, providing a link back to that earlier work. 23-minute tracks need variety in order to hold the attention, and the duo is up to the challenge. The mystery of the music draws one in: what’s coming next? On subsequent plays, the ears gravitate to specific segments and sounds: stuttered stardust, feedback loops. If Volume One is an invitation to surrender to large sounds, Volume Two is a celebration of small sounds. Some samples last for only seconds, and never repeat; others wander through mazes before returning. Through it all, the live improvised nature of the recording shines through. The flow is not perfect, nor is it intended to be. This is a soundtrack to curiosity. What’s next? We’ll just have to keep listening.
Review of Essential Anatomies by Mike Haley, tabsout.com
Call me a old fashioned, but I think the use of full names should be reserved for people who have assassinated a public figure (or at least attempted to), shot up a shopping mall, or some other batty shit like that. But I’m willing to give Colin Andrew Sheffield & James Eck Rippie a pass. After listening to “Essential Anatomies” I think we will all agree that they deserve it. Not because they create frantic, unhinged environments. They do just the opposite. And they do it very, very well. Colin and James are far from strangers when it comes to collaboration. The two have been working together for over a decade, with output that includes a tape with the same title as this 48-minute gem, also released on Elevator Bath in back in 2016. This edition, recorded in Austin, Texas last year, appears to be sides 3 and 4 of what may be an ongoing series? I guess we will have to sit back and see how far they go. Processing digital and analog samples the duo lurches forward, crystallizing lucid impressions with distended, vexing ambiance. Like running your fingers through the shag carpet in Grandma’s bedroom, James Eck Rippie’s turntable sampling is chalky and thick. As snippets of sound pass, they leave behind dust and tiny strands of hair under your nails. You can almost smell the mothballs. The digital samples, which both members provide, are a fierce juxtaposition. An analogue for the digital would be more like the original appliances Grandma still has in her kitchen; Brightly colored, all orange and yellow, with indiscriminate hiss and clicks scattered about. The 1950’s GE fridge runs loud, but sometimes slams off without notice, leaving a void that you didn’t even notice was being filled until it passes. The second hand on the oven’s clock still rotates, but it’s warped metal rubs as it rounds the 12, flinging free into a vibrating, cosmic spring-out. All of this agitation melts together into an awesome sci-noir scene. Colin Andrew Sheffield, who runs the Elevator Bath label (what exactly is an “elevator bath” by the way??) knows James Eck Rippie well. And James Eck Rippie knows Colin Andrew Sheffield well. And it shows. They play off each other’s gnarly sample-contortions perfectly on volume 2 of “Essential Anatomies.” My advice: Take one of those pastel mints out of Grandma’s candy dish, place it on your tongue, push the button that reclines the old person chair, and enjoy the ride. Both sides stretch on for just under 25 minutes with no red lights or closed roads.