US sound artist Christopher McFall first started putting out work in 2005, on a variety of netlabels, and his output since then has consisted of a pretty equal split between CD releases and a generous quantity of free music. However, the last decade has seen McFall’s output reduce considerably: just two releases in 2012, one in 2013, followed by a gap of several years before Siren in 2017. Nothing since, which i sincerely hope doesn’t mean that it’s his swansong. Ever since my own first contact with McFall’s work, his 2008 album The City of Almost (originally one of my Best Albums of the Year), i’ve been a devoted acolyte, quietly obsessed with the unique way McFall uses existing sounds as the basis for dark, monochrome narratives liminally caught between being referential and abstract.
i’m going to explore two McFall releases, the oldest and the most recent. A Starved-Strafe Lancing Machine is the disarming title of his 2005 debut album, a title that displays a similar blurring of referential and abstract: a lancing machine appears to be a type of high pressure waterjet tool, though what “starved-strafe” refers to seems more allusive than specific. The three tracks on this album all demonstrate another of the key characteristics of McFall’s music, the way that he handles his materials in an almost defiantly undemonstrative manner. Sometimes this comes across as simply thoughtful, even meditative, but here the severity of it also suggests austerity. This is a music built from archetypes of noise and impact, smooth and rough, both of which very occasionally become clarified to resemble something approximating pitch.
McFall’s accompanying note states both his intentions and his starting point for this album:
I strive to use computer-based techniques to manipulate/engineer recorded aspects of the macroscopic world into a microscopic mosaic. I feel that the three compositions comprising A Starved-Strafe Lancing Machine are of a minimal and microscopic nature that is the outcome of several years of experimentation with field recordings, whereby sounds are recorded and then often times engineered beyond recognition. The source material used for these recordings was taken from a wide variety of location ranging from the studio I live in to highway underpasses.Christopher McFall
This is largely of anecdotal interest, though; the fragmentary elusiveness of these pieces, and their somewhat loosely-packed structure (the tiles in McFall’s “mosaic” are quite widely-spaced apart), are more important than their sonic origins. Broadly speaking, all three pieces operate in the same way, juxtaposing this collection of archetypes in a way that veers between the thoughtlessness of play and the scrutiny of a lab experiment. Often McFall is interested in what happens when multiple elements are placed on top of each other, forming either stratified constructions like the various moving parts of a complex bit of machinery or large-scale perspectives where each element is perceived to be located at increasing distances away.
As its title suggests, ‘Microdissect’ is the most abstract of the three, reduced to a tantalising, minimal interplay of shapes and textures, blank and fragile. The other two pieces integrate their sounds more and also allude more overtly to their origins. A few minutes into ‘Morpholino Wrench’ it’s almost shocking to hear a snatch of seemingly natural ambience, rudely curtailed as part of the work’s abrupt stop-start opening sequence. Though brief, that suggestion of something referential affects things from then on, allowing us to hear through the chuntering that follows to glimpse the possibility of a stretched-out and distorted source, and making McFall’s subsequent industrial texture seem like an almost transparent slice of unadorned reality. ‘1517 Cherry’ goes the other way; there’s the pervading sense that the source sounds are being intricately wielded, here directed primarily toward the creation of accents and rhythmic pulsations.
Irrespective of how obvious or otherwise the sounds come across, throughout A Starved-Strafe Lancing Machine there’s a remarkable discreetness that, even on his debut release, testifies to that “defiantly undemonstrative” approach i referred to before, displayed by McFall in all his work. Whether playful or experimental, and irrespective of the inherent drama in the music, compositionally speaking it displays something akin to nonchalance, rarely trying to make a conventional impression or strike an obvious pose.
We hear the same thing in McFall’s most recent release, Siren, though here while the palette of sounds is comparable, they are less primordial, more complex and subtle. Furthermore, the emphasis is no longer on stratified or perspectival multi-element constructions but on a single, central soundfield that occupies our focus throughout. The meaning of the title, though open to interpretation, is hinted at as being related to Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens, McFall utilising sounds that evoke the possibility of a ship, the sea and the wind, and enclosing the piece with female voices. In between, from an opening melding assorted creaks and clunks with a rich combination of drone, noise and shimmer, the music harnesses scraping friction to create repeating loops. It sets up a similar interplay of smooth and percussive materials as heard in A Starved-Strafe Lancing Machine, becoming almost naturalistic before McFall softens all hard edges to create a more gentle, dronal environment. Pulling everything back into soft noisy vagueness, the voices finally re-emerge properly (at the start they’re little more than a remote, ephemeral glimpse), their refrain cycling round and round while bassy chords thrum from the depths.
A Starved-Strafe Lancing Machine was released by Spanish netlabel CONV in November 2005; the label is long since defunct, but the album is still available on the Internet Archive, where its catalogue is maintained. Sadly, it’s only available in lossy MP3 format. Siren was released by Impulsive Habitat in June 2017 and is available from their website.