The most fascinating – and the most extensive – campaign of reissuing earlier work that i’ve ever encountered is by US artist Matt Waldron, better known as irr. app. (ext.). His earliest releases date from the late 1990s, a time when Waldron’s access to and capabilities with technology were apparently limited. As a consequence one of the earliest irr. app. (ext.) albums Dust Pincher Appliances, originally released in 1997, was revised just four years later and subsequently reissued in an expanded form. Almost from the outset, then, Waldron has been grappling with both creating and re-creating his music, and throughout the last two decades his irr. app. (ext). output (both solo and collaborative) has been a mixture of the new and the revised. Hitherto the process has been sporadic and somewhat haphazard: Their Little Bones (1999) was remastered in 2012, Perekluchenie (2005) in 2014, while 2018 saw reissues of Drone Works #10 (2005) (now with a new title, ‘Anticyclogenesis’), Night Wearing Feathers (2006), Observation Affects The Outcome (2013) and, in a second revision, Their Little Bones. Recently, though, Waldron has been more systematically working through his output chronologically, and the last couple of months have seen newly-remastered versions of two early albums, Foreign Matter, Nor Frequency Carrier (1999) and Radiant Black Future, Step Forward and Address the Present Amidst the Wreckage of the Past (2001).
Perhaps it should have been obvious or inevitable, but it’s only relatively recently i realised that i’ve come to think of the entire irr. app. (ext.) oeuvre as, if not provisional, then at least fundamentally fluid, always potentially subject to later rethinking and revising. i regard this approach as an integral part of Waldron’s creativity, fuelled not simply by a desire to ‘fix problems’ (though that is a significant part of it) but also an irresistible urge to continue to play with his palette of materials in new ways. When writing about Paul Dolden i remarked how the word “remaster” wasn’t remotely adequate or even correct to describe the process going on there, and that’s even more the case with many of the irr. app. (ext.) reissues, including these latest ones. Waldron hasn’t simply cleaned up all of the original source materials – though he has done that – and put them back together again, but he has then extensively reworked, revised and recomposed each piece such that it’s impossible to hear them as anything other than entirely new works.
As i wrote previously, i have no issue whatsoever with an artist wanting to do this – indeed, if the original process of creation was as difficult and laborious as it clearly was for Waldron (a process detailed in the engrossing lengthy notes accompanying these reissues) then it’s hardly surprising he would have wanted to revisit these works in order to try to get them closer to what he originally had in mind. However, as i also wrote previously, acts of re-creation such as this don’t undo previous acts of creation, and it’s important that the earlier manifestations of the work, whatever their creator’s misgivings or afterthoughts might be, should still be regarded as having a valid existence in their own right, and remain available. It’s a point that becomes all the more important when a great deal of time has passed between the remastering and when the works were first created, which in the case of both these latest reissues amounts to around 20 years. It’s important not simply because the composer’s creative outlook will have evolved considerably from the time when the works were first made, but also due to the fact that audiences may well have become considerably attached to the work during those intervening years. The quest for compositional ‘perfection’ is a thorny one – and, probably, also an asymptotic one.
Just as with Dolden, what we’re actually dealing with here are Foreign Matter Redux and Radiant Black Future Redux, and in both cases i’ll admit to being very apprehensive about them beforehand. i count myself extremely fortunate to own both of these albums in their original, very limited, home-made versions, and i think very highly of them. Furthermore, Radiant Black Future contains what is to my mind one of the greatest works exploring drone – which doesn’t really sound like a drone work – ever created by anyone, the fantastically-named ‘Nascere e Crescere e Ardere d’Inconsapevolezza’, an absolute masterpiece in slow-burning radiance (and which also originally turned me on to the poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti, from whose poem ‘Rivers‘ that title comes). So, to be frank, i wasn’t merely apprehensive about these reissues, i was genuinely fearful. As it turns out, my best and worst fears have both been realised.
To be blunt, the remaster of Radiant Black Future has, for me, progressed so far from the original that, for the most part, i found it difficult to listen to. Of course, i’m conscious of the fact that it’s my familiarity and, more importantly, affection for the original that’s informing my response to the remastered version. But as i’ve already indicated, this is one of the biggest barbs in the thorniness of all reduxed work: the way it will impact upon those who have already got to know and love it in its original form. Perhaps these new versions aren’t aimed at me but at a new irr. app. (ext.) audience that, due to the fact that the originals were typically released in very small numbers (which makes it all the more surprising that, somehow, i’ve ended up with two original copies of Foreign Matter…), will never have had the chance to hear them before, and are therefore approaching them completely cold. Perhaps, but from my ‘pre-warmed’ perspective the remastered Radiant Black Future sounds like it’s been heavily overthought and overworked, lacking the spontaneity and vivacity that has always driven Waldron’s wonderfully absurdist approach to music-making. It reminded me of how i felt in the late 1990s when the ‘Special Editions’ of the original Star Wars trilogy were first unleashed on an unsuspecting world: shock, bemusement and not a little horror. To be fair, one of the tracks, ‘Auslöschen Der Unnötigen Lichter’, does sound greatly improved, but mainly due to the fact that its intensity has been increased, becoming even more exciting.
All this being said, i must stress the fact that my issues with Radiant Black Future are unavoidably based on the fact that i know and love the original as well as i do. The 2020 version is by no means a ‘bad’ album – far from it, as it still remains a superb example of why Matt Waldron is one of the most unpredictably and outrageously imaginative sonic artists you’ll ever hear. i was always going to be listening to the remaster in a comparative frame of mind, and from that perspective, the original is best.
Radiant Black Future clearly highlights the perils of remastering, but i have to balance those reservations against the fact that Foreign Matter, Nor Frequency Carrier, which has been subject to just as extensive pulling apart and putting back together again, sounds hugely more impressive than in its original form. i take some comfort from this reaction: it suggests that while long-standing familiarity and affection certainly do inform our response to remastered work, they certainly don’t govern it.
Waldron’s approach to sound is one that involves the layering and juxtaposition of often highly disjunct, seemingly irreconcilable sources into music that always seems to project a strong, if ambiguous, narrative tone. i hesitate to call them ‘dramas’, yet the way they embrace an acousmatic fondness for blurring quotation and allusion bestows on them an incredibly vivid pseudo-visual aspect that makes it seem as if one’s not merely listening to this music but, somehow, also watching it. And it’s this aspect that Waldron has greatly enhanced in the remastered version of Foreign Matter. This is partly achieved by the tracks being expanded in length, allowing more time for the multitude of elements to speak, and for the inscrutable drama to unfold.
But where the remaster of Foreign Matter, Nor Frequency Carrier proves most impressive is in its clarity. Waldron’s layering of sounds is often considerable, to the point where, in the originals, they can sound rather stodgy and compressed, weighed down by the weight of what’s going on. This had an obfuscating effect, somewhat reducing its disorienting but beguiling overall impact. Yet in this newly-polished form, all of the details come through with absolutely stunning transparency. The word ‘dense’ is no longer appropriate for these soundscapes and, dramatically speaking, they sound more pseudo-visual than ever before, it’s as if we were seeing with our ears. i could write almost endlessly about the marvels in this and other irr. app. (ext.) releases, but one of the things i’ve taken away most from this remaster is the way it highlights how much beauty there is in this music. It’s perhaps not a word that comes most readily to mind when confronted with the aberrant, mind-mangling capriciousness of Waldron’s creativity. It’s true to say that Foreign Matter is just as discombobulating as it’s always been (probably more so), yet i’ve never felt so completely entranced and mesmerised by it before. The nebulous atmosphere that opens the album in ‘Cognitive Disorder 1 – Expectation’; the subtle interactions in the layers that eventually become machine-like poundings in ‘Cognitive Disorder 2 – Expansive Uselessness’; the exquisitely delicate insect and animal texture that opens ‘Cognitive Disorder 4 – Melancholia’; the discrete clarity of the various vocal sources during the first part of ‘Cognitive Disorder 8 – Morbidity Of The Cortex’. All of these are just microcosmic instances of what typifies Waldron’s meticulous reworking of this album, keeping the music obviously close to the original yet throughout giving it a staggering lucidity.
i’m curious to see whether, over time, i warm to the remastered Radiant Black Future or whether by this stage i’m irrevocably connected to the original. For now, at least, i’m sticking firmly with the 2001 original. Unfortunately, the original version isn’t available anywhere, so unless you’re able to track down a copy of one of the handful of original CDs, or Waldron decides to make the original available as well (fingers crossed), that’s sadly not an option. But where the remaster of Foreign Matter, Nor Frequency Carrier is concerned, it’s been an absolute delight to enter into its uniquely gorgeous and bizarre soundworld anew, and feel not only that i’m hearing it for the first time, but that i’m finally hearing it as the composer intended.
Both remasters are available from the irr. app. (ext.) Bandcamp site.