FROM disastrous events that upend your world can sometimes come good things; sometimes, I’m no Pollyanna here. Fortunately for Duncan Marquiss, guitarist with Chemikal Underground’s The Phantom Band, a major setback has led to another path, and a rather excellent one, albeit eventually.
That quartet, with four albums such as Fears Trending and The Wants under their collective belts and a healthy, devoted fanbase, watched their career lurch into hiatus when, on tour in Lille, all their gear was stolen from their van. Distraught times.
“We were already exhausted by then, so it felt like a good time to take a break,” Duncan recalls. “After a while I started doing some solo gigs, to keep myself playing mostly, and the music on this album came from that period.”
That album, Wires Turned Sideways In Time, definitely retains some of the motorik, propulsive cleverness of The Phantom Band, with some tracks very much playing out in the economy of that stripe of post-punk of bands such as Wire and the like, even Joy Division; but there’s a whole lot more going on. It’s at once pastoral and really quite urban.
He owes, he says, the roots of his multivalent creative approach to his folks; an art teacher and a biologist. “I think that early exposure to wildlife affected my outlook,” he observes;” thinking about humans as evolved animals. My mother taught me a lot about creativity, encouraging me to go to art college. These are dual influences in my work; it’s always about the overlaps between nature and culture.”
And yes, for sure there’s a krautrock influence: he cheerfully cites bands such as Cluster, Harmonia, and Popul Vuh, but he also draws on other, currently less revered instrumental music, such as Bruce Langhorne’s The Hired Hand, and Jim O’ Rourke’s brilliant four-part instrumental guitar essay for Drag City, Bad Timing. Arthur Russell gets a look in, too; as do soundtracks.
“I used to use music in my art practice a lot,” Duncan, also an exhibiting fine artist, says. “Creating soundtracks for videos. I’d spend time analysing films to see how the music affected the image emotionally.” He’s recently been
commissioned to create soundtrack works for The Common Guild, a gallery in Glasgow, and a video by the Turner Prize-winning artist Laure Prouvost.
He grew up in rural Aberdeenshire, and returned there, to his parents’, to record the album. “Aberdeenshire in the 1990’s was culturally remote,” he says. “But maybe that isolation gave me space and time to learn to play music.”
The record was actually put together in his folks’ garage. “Apart from the wind and the swallows nesting in the eaves, there’s not many distractions around,” he says. The perfect, peaceful setting in which to create an album with more than a little pristine futurism coursing through it.
“Drivenhalle” is where you enter the portal, and a fine place it is too: a ten-minute odyssey of instrumental guitar, a world away from the Jack Rose/Nathan Salsburg end of that particular spectrum; it has more of a krautrock, post-punk aesthetic, moving, always moving, thrumming away in widescreen, warmed by major seventh harmonies and a sense of wonder, electronic beauty sweeping you ever on; cyclical, melodic sweetness and glockenspiel undercurrents, shimmers and grander, crashing chords. If there was yet a tune written in which to immerse through a train window at the overcast countryside, vanish into camera mode in the world, I’d venture: this is it.
“I like it when music builds itself up in an organic fashion,” says Duncan of the track. “When it just seems to emerge and almost writes itself.”
And check the great accompanying video: impressionistic, minimal, full of grain and texture and recurring motifs, asking questions in the prettiest way while leaving it to you to provide the answers in your own mind. Which seems a perfect match of the eye and the ear, really.
And that beauty, a kinda futuristic, psychogeographic odyssey, broad, brave, clean-lined and verdant, sets the tone for a gorgeous record. The following “C Sweeps” is made of strings struck up beyond the nut and glissandi of plectrum harmonics; pulls together strands of folktronica as espoused by Ulrich Schnauss and Mark Peters with a pretty ambience somewhere towards Four Tet in execution; a halcyon pop for a future or alternate society, galumphing, rolling percussive hook and all. It segues smoothly into the shoegazey chime of “Fixed Action Patterns”, a strong, mantric arpeggio that gradually subsumes to dream clockwork of xylophone, allowing a few darker thunderheads of hum and feedback to sweep across the skies as it does so, never quite relinquishing its six-string enchantment. Both interlocking discourses fading into peace in some delicate wah-wah processing.
“Tracks” breaks for somewhere quite different, and possibly on the wrong side of them; it’s a dusty, loping slide guitar nugget, very much in the folk-blues fingerpicking tradition, as if to snake a tentacle across to purer solo guitar waters and announce: look, hey, I can do this too. Of course I can. It rags like Jack Rose in his pomp, accelerates to a farmstead hoedown; but then there’s subtle glows of this other, more modern world in tone wash and sympathetic harmony, like a city over the horizon at nightfall. Again, it slowly mutates into something more mysterious, shadowier and more impressionistic, takes on an increasingly Appalachian-meets-ambient flavour.
You’ll find that same subtle splicing potently at work elsewhere on the album closer, “Minor History”, fittingly in a minor key; it’s another downhome odyssey in Tompkins Square and William Tyler’s corner of the map, mixing the bluegrassy with the kosmiche in phasing ambient tones – the stars blazing bright in the firmament way up yonder above the timbered porch. Yes, there’s a touch of the Ry Cooders about it, for sure; which Duncan acknowledges. “I like the sparseness and tension [of that world],” he says. “It leaves space for the listener.”
“Murmur Double” sets course fair once more for a motorik post-rock shimmer over a beat that sounds like it’s being chiselled, live, from some kind of friable stone; Cocteau Twins after a large dose of Delay ’68, perhaps. There’s some especially smile-inducing, grainy bass textures herein, Peter Hook’s essence bottled and titrated with pine and other aromatics.
The title track, “Wires Turned Sideways In Time” comes at this late stage in proceedings and perhaps surprisingly, at three minutes less change, is the shortest and one of the most understated tracks on the record; backwards-masked and sonically degraded percussion patters under a landscape of warm drone tones and clearer focussed, thumbed chiming. Short, of course, never excludes delightful.
Duncan’s solo guitar essays are somewhere to spend a lot of time. There’s more revealed with every pass, other elements becoming clear, other turns of thought; they’re by turns transporting, often quietly cosmic, nope – kosmiche; it’s filmic, too, which should come as no surprise.
Oblique, poetic and really great is the mood board here. Wires Turned Sideways In Time is a halcyon music with which to travel through some idyllic garden city that you’ve never visited; and which is yet to exist.
Duncan Marquiss’s Wires Turned Sideways In Time will be released by Basin Rock digitally, on limited CD and on heavyweight vinyl on March 4th; you can order yours now at his Bandcamp page.