Album review: John Thayer – ‘Supermundane’: a palimpsest of nuanced, intelligent ambience

The Breakdown

A clever, immersive record, is Supermundane. Sometimes it plays out like Chihei Hatakeyama on warp speed; at others, it reminds me of artists such as The Boats: aesthetically extremely pretty, playing across the analogue-electronic interface, bursting with ideas, fossicking about in the undergrowth to find little abandoned treasures of sound. You'll find it in the very cool back bedroom at parties, where the learning goes on. Rather great, all told.

NEW YORK percussionist, audio engineer and all-round musical polymath John Thayer, fresh from two collaborative, cassette-only albums last year – Untangling The Ghost, on which he sparred with reeds player Stank Zenkov, and Mountain Rumors, in tandem with Craig Schenker – is not about to depart this grinding year of our lord 2021 without dropping a little ambient beauty into it, although he’s left it to the year’s end to do so; he’s an album, Supermundane, out this Friday on Moon Villain.

Nine tracks in all, Supermundane explores the full range of the percussive palette – and let’s not forget that percussion isn’t just drums, but includes the pinging delight of the vibraphone, which instrument has been employed by everyone from Bobby Hutcherson to Masayoshi Fujita to beautiful effect.

The beauty of serendipity at play: John likes to bring various disciplines into the arena in constructing his soundscapes, including post-processed percussive elements, field recordings, more rigidly sequenced electronica superstructures and the fluidity of the ‘Fourth World’ aesthetic, as conceived by Brian Eno and John Hassell.

By turns, you’ll find Supermundane blissful, oh-so textural, spacious, languid, energetic, weaving between an abstracted post-jazz exploration and clever ambience, field recordings, an electronica approach. His inspiration came from seeing the world – and perhaps himself – anew, as comes from changing one’s setting; refreshing, allowing the chance to perceive anew.

“During a year of frequent travel,” John imparts,”I found myself waking up in new places, surprised by how vividly I was dreaming.

“I became curious about how my surroundings were influencing my dream state and chose to document them through field recording, allowing me to continue the conversation with these environments using the only instrument I had: my laptop.

“The goal was to incorporate and repurpose documents of the aural world in an attempt to impart my music with a private experience that could be relatable to all curious listeners.”

Thusly, and illustrating the roaming nature of John’s album process, Supermundane was written and recorded at home in Brooklyn, in Kyoto, and midway between the two in Maui, Hawaii. It is, I trust you’ll find, far from mundane.

John Thayer, photographed by Lea Thomas

“Strata” and “Akaku” couple together as an opening suite: “Strata”, a snippet of just over a minute, chops up with a broad grin, rushing around on a sugar high of the beautiful capabilities of sound – it’s having a dayglo ball; glowing, here in spate, there pausing; a fanfare of grand intention, a blast of fracturing and spliced sound to awaken you to the sonic possibilities approaching herein. “Akaku” is like the grand liner led out into midstream with the help of the energy of “Strata”; the malleting and the bells and the washes of high, sunny electronics gain structure, although rhythmically the track pitches and yaws like mid-period Autechre, and the bass fizzes and bubbles with free abandon, Eighties’ electro flaring around a piece with a more contemplative Japanese formality and beauty. We’re told John used generative midi experimentation to set the little virtual instruments free, allow them to play out as they wished.

John’s ringing, hammered instrumentation style is in full effect on “Kites”, one of two singles which titillated ahead of the full album, towards the end of last month. Birdsong swoops and glides through a foliage that straight-up twinkles. Delight is doing a lot of lifting during this track; luscious.

He says: “I was on tour in Japan, playing a seaside town called Nishio. The promoter put us up in a funky old hotel perched on the cliffs above Mikawa Bay. I knew sunrise would be special so I got up early and was delighted to see hundreds of kites flying in the dawn sky. I made a handful of field recordings, experimented with audio to midi processing and arrived on the main melody, like most of my efforts, quite by accident.”

Immersive, harmonic, woven of fine sonic cloth? It is, it is. Look, given it was a single and all, press play below and listen for yourself.

“Kamo” descends into the eternal hum of the universe, gongs resonating and decaying and pregnant with harmonic isotopes and the clean, fresh air, a field recording of the everything present in silence adding so much space as tones surge and wash. The city the song is titled for and no doubt sound-collated herein being small and high above sea level. It’s the sorta song that could induce you to assume the lotus, almost involuntarily. You’ll want to discover within, without, this music. You need to get under the surface of it and peer back up, allow it to be your lense. Towards the end, the drone weaving is rent by arrows of what sounds like squealing rails, metal on metal.

… which clangour bleeds straight into “Shimyoin”, named for a Kyoto temple. “Shimyoin” grandstands like addled techno, ancient and modern colliding in its brevity; the bass is fat, the incidental textures worthy of Warp Records, the koto or vibraphone winding prettily and placidly above the machining depths.

The title track and its companion, “Sota”, continue in that vein; muscular electronica rises and falls, lapsing to much more atmospheric passages and beautiful, winding and rhythmic melodies. It’s like a palimpsest, modern tech built on top of all that comes before; scratch and worry away at it and you’ll find other atmospheres revealed; tradition, nature. All inform the soundscape and, by extension, our everyday lives.

“Being” is lighter, brighter, classically minimalist, in a way which seems to be having a subtle and necessary moment this year; it roams ahead, shorn of much of the bass thrum and anchoring of other tracks, its melody thrilling past in a blur of other things merely glimpsed. It’s be great music for watching the window canvas on the Shinkansen, the superfast Japanese express trains.

“Veil” concludes proceeding by fully immolating in a molten pool of buckling, shearing, speaker-fucking noise drone, Heckeresque and salutary and whoahoh. I wasn’t expecting that, tbf; but then, there’s nothing in this album that fully indicates that you might expect anything other. You realise you’ve trusted John and his vision from the off, and if he decides to plunge you into this awesome caldera, then you plunge with full willingness, the fire is sweet.

A clever, immersive record, is Supermundane; and I hope you’ll join me in venturing that there’s very little of the mundane about it, unless of course, John is playing with concepts of burrowing down into the joy and sensuousness of the quotidian, if only we permit ourselves to allow it.

Sometimes it plays out like Chihei Hatakeyama on warp speed, hurrying to the next idea, the next collision of texture, no time to waste; at others, it reminds me of artists such as The Boats; aesthetically extremely pretty, of that there can be no doubt, playing across the analogue-electronic interface, and also bursting with ideas, fossicking about in the undergrowth to find little abandoned treasures of sound. You’ll find it in the very cool back bedroom at parties, where the learning goes on. And of course, the widescreen electro/kyoto melodies recall the Yellow Magic Orchestra – how could they not – but layered up with modern sound textural thinking.

Rather great, all told.

John Thayer’s Supermundane will be released by Moon Villain digitally and on vinyl on November 19th and can be pre-ordered here.

Connect with John elsewhere online at his website and on Instagram.

Previous Live Review: Red Rum Club / Ruby J - Sheffield Leadmill 11.11.2021
Next Live Review: Pastiche / T A D H G - Upstairs at Whelans, Dublin 11.11.2021, plus galleries

No Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.