EP review: Ian William Craig/Kago – ‘FatCat Split Series 24’: one final valedictory 12″ calls time on a superb experimental series

The Breakdown

So long, Split Series; you remained a potent and cutting edge exploratory force until the very end. If you're one of those 24 to have all 24 lined up come this weekend, then what an aural document you have; and all rounded off in an experimental humanism which illustrates how many musics there are to wonder at and immerse in. Hopefully it's just farewell for now; but job wholly done, FatCat.

I DON’T know about you, with the vinyl revival – I mean, really, it’s a re-arrival now, isn’t it, here again for the foreseeable – that maybe the 12″ is one thing that hasn’t really had the credit it’s due in the resurgence.

So it’s with a sad heart that we bring the news that after 24 years and 24 releases since FatCat’s Split Series 1 appeared, the very last of the long-running series will hit the racks this coming week – and see Ian William Craig and Kago take alternate sides. (Of course, if you’ve been following the series through from the beginning, you’ll have watched the small, hand-drilled icons roaming across the cover release by release, and notice that the cover artwork is now full).

There’s been some great and some hair-raisingly exploratory releases since the 1997 inception of the form with the accolade of the debut going to Bristol’s Third Eye Foundation and Manchester’s V/VM – crackling and howling with distortion, that one.

Since then we’ve seen further sonic extremism from AMM meeting Merzbow; off-kilter American studies, when Gastr De Sol’s David Grubbs met Animal Collective’s Avey Tare; deep textural burrowing from James Plotkin vs Pole; and more.

Dating to the very beginnings of FatCat, the Split Series was set up as an occasional outlet for high-quality, challenging music on 12” records that resisted easy classification and which would continually shift, keeping the listener guessing and utilising the unique qualities of the format – whether it be pitting different sounds and styles against one another, drawing out links and similarities; or simply introducing unknown artists on the flip of a more established name.  Over the years the series has gained both cult and collectible status.

And it’s to the human voice that this final release turns, with the wholly otherly Ian William Craig, the beautiful singer who works with dying tape decks to bring decay to his practise, taking side A, while the little known but brilliant Estonian poet-singer Kago contributes a septet of tracks to the flip.

“Neither side here,” say FatCat, “will sound quite like anything you’ve previously heard.”

And so the swansong sees Ian William Craig delivering a side-long slice of visceral, tape-based electronic experimentation that flickers, sizzles and surges. He offers one awe-inducing, 19-minute track, “Because It Speaks”, in which his voice meshes deep in a cyclical, surging thrum.

An absolute cracked symphony, it seems to fashion itself in the subterranea from base elements of scouring electronic static, dripping suggesting a cave or tunnel system far removed from the run of the mainstream; some human presence is alerted to you by abstracted mutterings, and then Ian slowly slips to centre stage, a pale vocal phantasm, his voice pure, keening, at first cracked as if transmitting through a lonely, junked screen à la the malevolent video for “Come To Daddy”; baleful. Soon there is a whole chorus of pure-toned spirits singing with a melancholic white heat.

The musical accompaniment is a bathetic, wet slide of rust and grease and metal, an eldritch machinery seemingly still at work on some arcane purpose many decades since any conscious hand first set it in motion. You can see why he’s been noted in the past as “a singer destroying his own work, yet creating something more elegiac and profound in the process”. How perceptive. The destruction of creation itself as creation. (You can read out review of Ian’s collaboration with Daniel Lentz from last year, FRKWYS Vol. 16: In A Word, here.)

A middle ground releases the tension somewhat, the lowering, pulsing foghorn of a bass ceasing and giving way to other alien tones, swift in attack, breath-arresting, primary; Ian temporarily as if a lonely early 78 is playing several ashen, wrecked rooms away. He suddenly swoops in, ululating, trembling, articulating something beyond your usual reasoning. It’s a suite that makes you sit up, your antennae and hardwired, fight or flight response system alert; your eyes will widen. Easy listening this is not. Clever, exploratory listening this very much is.

On the flip, Kago is the alias of Estonian poet, singer and writer Lauri Sommer. He began as a musician in the early ‘90s and has played punk, folk, indie, electro, sung in a church choir and studied English folk. Active as Kago since 2003, he’s released seven albums, taking in a mix of folk-blues singer-songwriter material, renditions of Southern-Estonian runic songs, dictaphone rhythms and DIY electronica, quiet piano pieces, stretched-out ambience and radio dramas.

The name Kago was taken from the leader of alien travellers in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast Of Champions, and means “travelling chair” in older Japanese; and Lauri leads a reclusive life alone on his farm in the forest. He has rarely travelled or performed outside of Estonia, and his music speaks deeply of the land it springs from.

Opening track ‘Kröösnomi’ invites immediate correspondence with the preceding Craig, it being a music for human voice and tape machine; you can hear the deck motor whirr into life, playing back a tinnily compressed recording of Lauri himself reciting a Seto folk song. He sings alternate lines, overlaying them in real time against their taped mirror. Lauri calls this technique “dictaphone shamanism”, and it’s one you can hear for yourself below on “Tetermats 2”, another track from his side of the EP, which we’ve embedded for you below; It contains supporting vocal lines recorded to dictaphone, played back in crudely punched on/off rhythms, over which Lauri – and his four-year-old daughter, Liidi – sings. It witnesses an oral folk tradition invoked as lo-fi as you like.

Elsewhere, “Avovang” is a shifting fragment of riverine pump organ, lo-fi analogue recording and playback imperfection and delight, sounds like a Boards of Canada interlude or some forgotten old cassette you made with your friends and a Walkman. Which is sublime. How much resonance do those tapes have now? Do you own them, wish you could roll back time and not bin them? Because I sure as hell do. Sudden yelps and ice-melts of sound torrent through spacetime. “Suure reede lapsed” is an intoning for reed instrument and voice and is deep into a musical tradition that, unless you’re a anthropologist with a special European concern, it’s pretty much certain you won’t have heard before; it seems to span a whole east-west, midnight-sun latitudinal swathe, has echoes in music which you’d consider much as rooted much further to the east.

“Leontiine Kirotosk” is a contemplative swirl of glass and water musics, notes bending and refracting in a delightful wooziness, a brook of electronica running backwards in tandem, fragile and hallucinatory. Me?: a whole album like this, please. “Käed lahti on ulga kergem sõita”, which title translates as “It’s easier to drive with your hands open”, and there’s a proverb to ponder, has a crackling patina overlaying what you’d assume was a thumb piano, were it a field recording from warmer climes, ringing and clicking with a catchy shuffle that’s pretty much a dancefloor mantra repurposed for an arboreal arcana.

And then, in conclusion and causing you to misstep pretty much entirely, Kago steps into a fully formed electric folk instrumental for chiming guitar and sweet violin on “Uued Vigikad”, which though farmstead-intimate, seems whole and unified that you may have dispensed with as an aesthetic entirely for the duration; think Gorky’s or Maher Shalal Hash Baz, a little drunk on itself but embracing you warmly.

So long, Split Series; you remained a potent and cutting edge exploratory force until the very end. If you’re one of those 24 to have all 24 lined up come this weekend, then what an aural document you have; and all rounded off in an experimental humanism which illustrates how many musics there are to wonder at and immerse in. Hopefully it’s just farewell for now; but job wholly done, FatCat.

Ian William Craig and Kago’s Home (Split Series #24) will be released digitally and on limited (500 only) 12″ by FatCat on July 16th, and is available to pre-order now, here.

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