ALBUM REVIEW: Daniel O’Sullivan – ‘Electric Māyā: Dream Flotsam and Astral Hinterlands’: transporting and dazzling shortform art

DANIEL O’SULLIVAN, the Mancunian-born son of a former Hacienda DJ, is someone who you can’t pigeonhole at all; it’s so hard to pluck a friend by the sleeve and say: “Daniel O’Sullivan! You need to hear him. You’ll adore him. He’s this.”

Because, most of all, he isn’t this. Or, indeed, that. He may be all of it. He’s said in interview that an early formative experience came through an understanding of Bowie through Diamond Dogs; not the music therein, no; the imagery, the ability to shift and explore and change, to embrace, to shed and emerge on new wings.

One thing is for sure, though: you definitely need to hear him. Embrace him. He knows how to burrow inside music.

A quick whistle-stop tour through his musical journey would begin, if one was to be hyper-reductive, over in metal; but peer closer and see how the artists he was working with were actually pushing way out from the main source like a repelled magnet. 

He served time with Norwegian outfit Ulver, who took their particular brand of Scandi-metal and sweetened it with noise, with cool breaks, with chamber traditions.

He’s worked with Stephen Malley and his Sunn O))) outfit; which, lexically reducing them into the word ‘metal’, it’s like saying Concorde is a ‘bird’. 

And there’s been his enduring collaborations, cross-fertilisations and friendship with dark-folk drone improviser Alexander Tucker, which saw the two combine in Grumbling Fur, finding a lamenting and melodic out-folk style for hidden beauties such as “The Ballad Of Roy Batty”. They released a clutch of diverting long players for Thrill Jockey, The Quietus and VHF – Daniel’s current home.

He’s actually only been recording and releasing under his own name these past three years; VELD, Folly, and this May’s single-sided, etched The Colour Of Entropy (In Three Stages) have all offered a dazzling display of off-kilter baroque folk, astonishing ambience, filmic interludes, sweeping tronica, systems minimalism; he’s flowered into a breathtaking polymath; all’s fish to his net. He’s found a future music in a similar, if wholly different aesthetic way to Jockstrap; new marriages, fusions, integrations. It’s really exciting.

In résumé: he’s been touring around the sphere of music. He sees how it fits together, maybe how it hasn’t yet fitted together; he’s spent time in a number of interstices, liking those moments where the music bleeds across the rulebook like spilt water, making the sonic ink run. 

And with is new album Electric Māyā: Dream Flotsam and Astral Hinterlands out this Friday, October 23rd, and which will be available on vinyl from VHF Records in collaboration with KPM, he’s set himself a new brief to work to: it’s to be the first of three albums recorded and arranged specifically in the short form – as with the library music that so seduces the crate-digging cognoscenti from partner release label KPM and other production music companies such as De Wolfe: music entirely realised yet also subservient to the needs of film and television and the incidental. Sonics to hear; yet maybe not to be noticed. 

What if the short form could be free of such submissive shackling and allowed to create its own worlds?

Daniel says: “Library music. Akasha. Here you accept that music behaves like a thing to accentuate another thing, seemingly unrelated. A beautiful, shining blankness. Not passive. An opportunity to wade. A brief encounter with an open-ended destiny. As in, you never know who or what it will be partnered with.

“With library music the emphasis tends to be on functionality and less on sonic self-portraiture; so it compels you to be concise, like: what is the function of this work? The distance is liberating.

“It’s less “What Am I? and more “What Is This?”. It compels you to be brief, each little cell is a world of its own in an assemblage of miniatures all vibrating in their collective identity.”

And so he set about creating a slew of little miniatures  – 18 in all for this, the debut, so at least another thirty-odd to follow; he composed and assembled them at KPM Music’s Dream Lion Studios using voice, piano, viola, cello, drums, percussion, synthesizers, tape machines, clarinet, bamboo flute, recorder and harmonium. Not your musician-next-door level of instrumental (in)competency then; instead a wide, wide sonic palette.

Daniel O’Sullivan, photographed by Kerry O’Sullivan

So what are the results? Well; you could do worse than start with the three-minute odyssey that is “Eagle Ears”, which Daniel dropped ahead of the album; warm, stately organ, a female voice in blurred, emotive cadence, building subtly with a hallowed atmosphere. It’s a rainbow of sonic suggestion, hints at a whole other sphere of story. Never mind the width: feel the quality.

Now, it would be exhaustive to take every sound miniature Daniel’s presented for us in turn and examine it: I want to leave vistas for you to explore. Plus, basically, you pretty much need to buy this album, for reasons many. It veers across the filmic, the dronesome, the folky, the ambient, often simultaneously.

For me, it has a direct correspondence to the miniature in the world of painting; a whole world shrunk down to a perfectly reproduced microcosm, the delicacy and faithfulness of the reproduction of landscapes a few millimetres across. Such paintings demand a deep exploration, and somehow grow to eclipse you as they draw you into their detail. Such it is with Electric Māyā: Dream Flotsam and Astral Hinterlands – it’s tiny in the hugest way.

“Butterscotch Broth” – apart from a title that sounds just possibly a good comestible – is just so beautiful, in a Nordic/Kranky style. It has layered sustain, grandeur, overdriven resonance, thrum, high tonal glitter like shards of ice catching rays. “Sybil” pirouettes at glacial speed through similar territories.

“Arpeggi Mutation” permits a slow piano to drop like fat summer rain, while there’s a noir Morricone whistle removed from the arid dust to evoke a peculiar, lonely verdancy. “Inner Phase” marries pretty, interjecting piano figures to a dronescape with an almost monastic feel.

“Grays March” sees electronic burble march purposefully through a dystopian cityscape, where it swells out with sirens and sandpaper grain. It’s very kosmiche, circa 78-79.

Some other absolute standouts from a proper odyssey of an album would include the following: “Flashbulb Memory” and “Verlayne Bluebottle”, slow piano laments painting rainy city pavements in the vein of Felt’s Train Above The City; “Dream Of Diadems”, in which a slow-ass funk groove colonises electronic ambience with a soupcon of graininess, a remarkable symbiosis, with a little flute just to dazzle more; and “Adorning Solitude”, a droning folk yearn, seemingly part Celtic, part raga in its weave and shimmer.

It’s an album that makes you come to it, rather than it to you. It’s a collection of short stories; of microfiction. Take your time and don’t breeze through; you’ll be peering through windows into 18 little other spheres. If you loved Martin Duffy’s Assorted Promenades or indeed Felt’s Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death/The Seventeenth Century, or whichever title Lawrence has currently decided upon, you’ll totally get the aesthetic. It’s a really bewitching record. Go buy.

Daniel O’Sullivan’s Electric Māyā: Dream Flotsam and Astral Hinterlands will be released by VHF/KPM on vinyl on Friday, October 23rd. You can pre-order your copy at VHF’s Bandcamp page, here.

Follow Daniel at his Bandcamp page or at his Mothlite Blogspot.

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