Album review: Adam Stafford – ‘Trophic Asynchrony’: Falkirk composer moves to a deep, cyclical set of formal minimalism to address the ecological state we’re in

The Breakdown

As the title indicates, Trophic Asynchrony is a clever, clever record, and not one those of us who are embedded with Diamonds Of A Horse Famine might have expected. Avoiding the pitfalls of the glut of post-classical records that have come flooding out during lockdown, it roams far and free, employs many colours from the avant-garde and electronica worlds in order to navigate the place we've all collectively somehow blundered into. It's concerned, but not rhetorical or grandstanding; leftfield but dazzling, highbrow but enveloping. It's hard to slot confidently into any one section or genre; and aren't they usually the keepers?

FALKIRK’S Adam Stafford, the film-maker and folk artist whose lockdown notebook album Diamonds Of A Horse Famine we warmly embraced here last summer – not least because it contained the free-associating “Erotic Thistle” and its fantastic line, “melt down my death mask to fashion it into a dildo” (read our full review here) – has returned with a swerve further into leftfield, away from a core folk-blues palette and more towards an avant-classical and electronica album themed around the climate crisis, entitled Trophic Asynchrony (the phenomena whereby interacting species shift out of phase due to environmental stressors, a process thought to be accelerating due to climate change), the world’s rhythms turning upside down: swallows returning in winter, of blizzards in summertime and daffodils at Christmas.

So different from his previous two albums, which illustrates his far-reaching talent, Trophic Asynchrony is circular, ever-mutating, expressive, shows rather than tells in the warp and weft of a sound palette which has its roots in the recherché traditions of Moondog, Terry Riley, Masoyoshi Fujita et al, rather than the waters of folk; an octet of tracks to soundtrack the societal confusion and informational overload of political chaos, plague and ecological precarity.

We’re at a real critical crossroads in terms of where humanity is heading and the systems of neo-liberal excess are happy to eat themselves to death while the rest of us either shrug or shake our heads,” says Adam.

Adam Stafford, photographed by David P Scott

“Carnivore of Lawns” opens suddenly and brightly, like a systems music alarm clock; it rolls forward in the slipstream of its own internal cyclical insistence, widening out with piano and a flickering electronica which is refracted into a quivering quality, yaws and bends and suddenly swoops skyward. “I certainly had particular ideas in my head when I was writing stuff like the first track, ‘Carnivore Of Lawns’, which is supposed to evoke birds lifting off the ground in flight,” says Adam, naming as influences J.A. Baker’s classic book The Peregrine and Winged Migration, the astounding 2001 documentary in which the filmmakers Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin position you amid flocks of migrating birds. Which aim the piece manages admirably, dizzyingly, with those sudden, instinctive soars away from the earthbound and its otherly melodiousness. It sounds like a natural music, if not quite a human one, necessarily. You’re awake now, right? And in Adam’s possession for the duration of this beguiling record.

“Nested Octohedra” isn’t quite as whirlingly hectic as that audacious introductory track, and slips towards a Berlin/Tokyo organic-electronic interplay; texture, my friends, luxuriate in the texture. And the unfolding depth. Bells and fizzing tone-beasts and twin whimsical modular arrows of seeking melody twirl above a Sakamoto-esque piano, anchoring but in no way taming the complex whole. There’s a first perceptible vocal tone, wordless, a sigh in the lush greenery which you have to get entangled in to find – as if the singer from “Papua New Guinea” was a dryad; sterner, more caustic electro bass tones and what for all and intents and purposes sounds like a saw lend this a complex and immersive beauty. It falls in the grand eco-electronica tradition of Future Sound of London and Coldcut’s “Timber”, which is a great thing, of course.

That sawing is actually heavy breathing, gaining a steady mechanical quality: something Adam improvised during recording.

“Some people have said that it’s reminiscent of Inuit breath games, which wasn’t my intention,” he says. “I was imagining it being more like running, of trying to out-run a malevolent entity in an increasingly oppressive computer game.

“We’re always running from something in life: debt, work, old skeletons chasing us down, and death. Currently, fear of death is palpable and we can only operate within the framework of the game in which we are stuck.”

“Ruptured Telecine” turns its attention to more late-holocene concerns, and comes with a video inspired by the present-day cult of disinformation, QAnon, the paranoiac YouTube channel host and their flock of devotees, and the like. You can watch that below: eerie toybox melodies of the sort once espoused by Colleen create an intimate, changeling pop. You can watch that video right below:

“Million Year Emperor” is a quieter backwater, centrifuged around a backwards-looped melody, grave strings, a simple bah-bah-bah-bah vocal melody, finds a perch in the more string quartet end of post-rock, where such as Rachel’s and Piano Magic can be found at play. Suspenseful, later availed of a neo-bossa clicking polyrhythm and a buccaneering, minimal guitar, it’s music to travel the industrial edgelands at dusk, to marvel and decry.

“For Fawn” is even more introspective: after a modular bell like patterning with a Sixties’ Nonesuch feel it resolves as a quiet, rainy-day étude for bright, nuanced and hesitant piano, in modern compositional dialogue with itself. It’s brittle and mournful, a brief moment of pause in prettiness. You’re lurched out of reverie when it concludes super abruptly, mid-bar.

Adam tells us that the final third mostly concerns loss, which theming you can’t really miss in the brilliantly titled “Driver Of An Endless Latin Hearse”, which begins in that same beshadowed solo piano place as the preceding track, lazily metronomic, before evolving into a much more shiversome and cinematic confection; music for a stopped-down aperture in an attic, heavy drapes revealing moonlight. We’re talking the full, graceful yearn.

“Threnody For February Swallows” was the second preceding single, the visuals for which you can find right at the end; Adam summates the track, quite simply, as “a lament for the environment”. It presents as a Moondog-like odyssey of organ, bells like beading dew, an ambience with some of that neo-churchiness you get on occasion from Boards of Canada, spiralling away into cyclical minimalism, ever shifting through new phases, layering and grand. It’s a deep, a hallowed and enchanting music.

As you can find below, it comes accompanied by a supremely eerie edit by Leo Bruges, director of photography on Adam’s award-winning short film The Shutdown, of Dr Wise On Influenza (1919): the only known British film known to be made at the height of the Spanish flu epidemic, when about 2,500 were dying each week in London alone. With all the haunting nature of the silent movie-era aesthetic and that back story, it adds a supremely unsettling dimension to a tune that has a musical and thematic correspondence with Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi, in a place where that track consorts with incidental music from The Exorcist.

I was thinking of it almost as a horror film score,” says Adam. “We are definitely now at the crossroads of having a good future or having a bad future, which plays on my mind a lot as a father. But while it’s a lament about the environment, there’s also a little bit of hope in there, too.”

The octet of tracks concludes with what’s actually it’s oldest track, “Thrapples Clag”, which dates back to about November 2018, when Falkirk poet Janet Paisley died aged 70. A hometown creative scion who Adam had known since childhood, the title comes from a dialect phrase meaning ‘lump in the throat’, from her poem “Watter”, and is dedicated to her memory; it’s super-ghostly and disorienting, discorporeal human expostulations spinning in a space of grainy drone and lamenting strings, and each element mixed to a detached space, removed from your direct perception. It ends with a more abrading, alienating industrial texture that loops and swallows its tail and shears to silenceVery thoughtful and clever soundscaping indeed, it’s very Nordic, somehow.

As the title indicates, Trophic Asynchrony is a clever, clever record, and not one those of us who are embedded with Diamonds Of A Horse Famine, even most of Fire Behind The Curtain, might have expected – although those who keep abreast of Adam’s multifaceted, restlessly curious talent in film and earlier in his catalogue will be less surprised; avoiding the pitfalls of the absolute glut of post-classical records that seem to have come flooding out during the solitude of lockdown, it roams far and free, employs many colours from the avant-garde and electronica worlds in order to navigate the place we’ve all collectively somehow blundered into. It’s concerned, but not rhetorical or grandstanding; leftfield but dazzling, highbrow but enveloping. A cliche-free zone that like W.G. Sebald’s The Rings Of Saturn, is hard to slot confidently into any one section or genre; and aren’t they usually the keepers?

Adam Stafford’s Trophic Asynchrony will be released digitally by Song, By Toad Records on July 9th, with a rather gorgeous orange-inside-lemon vinyl pressing to follow in the autumn; both are available to pre-order now over at the label’s Bandcamp page.

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