If you’re one of those people (to borrow a line from Denis Norden) that would sit up late at night with the radio on underneath the covers not listening to John Peel but to the static fuzz between stations, then this album might well appeal. Not that this is an album full of the detuned radio hubbub, far from it. Sometimes in the all encompassing dark, huddled under the all-protecting duvet, shapes and sounds would make themselves apparent in the chaos. Find a number station, during the same sitting, and the world would take on a strange form of order, chaos, and apparently pointless mathematics.
Hiss Tracts is a project that finds David Bryant of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Set Fire To Flames working in collaboration with Kevin Doria (Growing). The pair have been working together since 2004, but it was in 2008 when the pair collaborated on some sessions for a performance at Lausanne Underground Film Festival that the seeds Hiss Tracts were initially sown. The formation and sculpting (and this really is a kind of sound sculpture) of their debut album might have taken a while, but it has been worth waiting for.
If there’s any precedent set for Shortwave Nights it can perhaps be found in the sound collages of Set Fire To Flames’ work, but this is a softer and stranger record than anything Bryant’s band ever recorded. Opening with the title track, Hiss Tracts invite you to make sense of it all by populating an undulating palette of drone with occasional ephemeral interjections from strings, cautious guitar notes and what might be the Tardis. This is soft focus fare, that is strangely threatening in tone yet also strangely comforting. It’s like spotting a white horse in a dense cloud of fog, and then remembering that scene from Twin Peaks. This is music to soothe the soul whilst allowing your mind to run riot.
Half-Speed Addict Starts With Broken Wollensak is a foreboding percussive piece, presumably played on piano. Although sometimes soothing, like wind, gently disturbing chimes, it is nevertheless insistent and marginally irritating. Slowed Rugs moves into Lynchian territory again with its rumbling noise, hiss and buried feedback, it comes across like an organic take on Eraserhead. At the end, the guitars start to play a recognisable motif that comes across like a bizarre interpretation of the Twilight Zone.
Just when things start to drift into dreamlike territory, Drake Motel / “9 Gold Cadillacs” suddenly transports the whole album to the Deep South as a short spoken word piece discusses the nature of money, life and friendship. A harmonica and guitar take over, leaving little doubt that this is a blues and a lamentation.
This brief interjection aside, Hiss Tracts return to a more other worldly space. Windpipe Gtrs consists of a single note drone with occasional, almost imperceptible nuances occurring throughout its duration. This section of the album is not unlike Lynch’s techniques of incorporating dream structure (or lack of) into his films. The first three songs lead the listener down one rabbit hole, Drake Motel acts as a pause, a brief waking spell, and then the dream sets off again, exploring similar themes, but from a slightly different angle. Halo Getters has a similar feel to Slowed Rugs, albeit slightly more urgent and unsettling.
For The Transient Projectionist revisits the chimes and percussive nature of Half-Speed. Steeped in reverb, the bell takes on ambiguous characteristics. It’s a dinner gong, a call to worship, and a death knell all at once. Test Recording At Trembling City is perhaps the most realised and focused piece on the album. It’s still hazy, but it is possible to envisage a city slowly breaking through the clouds and establishing itself in the mind’s eye. A terrifying surge of strings at the midpoint suggest an imminent crash or explosion before things ultimately settle down and thankfully become calmer again.
This is an album that requires immersion; many of the themes and motifs are barely there and need the blanks to be filled in. It is a sonic adventure, scary, exciting and otherworldly, and hopefully there will more worlds to explore with Hiss Tracts in the future.