Maxwell Sterling - Turn Of Phrase

  • Modern classical meets IDM on a truly stunning record.
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  • Few artists live up to the term "modern classical" like Maxwell Sterling. The English composer creates uncanny soundscapes that combine real-sounding strings with plasticky facsimiles, layered with samples, speech and field recordings. His melodies can feel generative, almost random—Autechre is the obvious antecedent here—yet they still sound composed, collecting into coherent melodies before letting loose again. The title track from his latest album, Turn Of Phrase, is one of his finest works in this style. What sounds like a harpsichord plucks out strange, jerky melodies, occasionally coalescing into a mournful phrase that sounds more powerful with each repetition. It's a wilderness of hyperreal textures and mind-melting chord changes, but each time that leitmotif resurfaces, it puts everything into perspective, conveying a sense of control over the intricate and sometimes befuddling music that defines Turn Of Phrase. The title track is followed by "Rage Aria," in which what sounds like a real string section duels with more of those synthetic, nylon-textured instruments. This time it sounds even more like classical music, but it's wrenching, almost uncomfortable, like listening to an orchestra double over in grief. Over time new elements surface, wheezing like the hoover synths of classic rave music, creating an unusual mix of sensations and feelings. "Rage Aria" triggers different parts of your musical memory at the same time, a little baroque here, a little IDM there. It's disorienting, and its hybrid nature never stoops to the clumsy orchestral-synth mashups that other artists in this same sphere have attempted before. Turn Of Phrase is as much a sound design record as it's a classical one. I've hardly seen an instrumental track title as descriptive as "Exuding Latex," which melts breathy woodwinds down into unreal melodies, like oozing liquid latex. It's a flash of emotive melody that feels much weightier than its two-minute runtime would imply. Likewise, the brief "Tremble Happy" is one of the most imposing songs on the record, triggering rapid-fire bursts of percussion and staccato instrumentation that frame the amorphous melody beneath. "Speaking In The Tongues Of Angels" is just as jittery, with trigger-happy instruments spelling out motifs in 16th notes, like an old Mark Fell track. Where that description could sound cold and metallic, Sterling's approach feels alternately human and plastic, with sounds made out of warm goo and hard shellac. "Speaking In The Tongues Of Angels" incorporates a field recording of a conversation—it sounds like it might have been recorded at a bustling gallery opening—which brings us to another element of Turn Of Phrase: a preoccupation with words and vocals. Throughout the record, snippets of voice—sometimes singing, sometimes wordless, sometimes spitting out a single word—appear in the fray, like a hint of the human surfacing amid all the artificiality. If only for a split second, it's a reminder of the humanity behind this music, which otherwise might sound like an emotionally mature AI composing a symphony. American artist and poet Leslie Winer appears on the LP's climax, "Tenderness." (She's worked with everyone from Sinéad O'Connor to Bomb The Bass to Jah Wobble.) Over the album's most unsettling composition—voices and strings time-stretched apart until you can hear every glitchy seam and artefact—Winer recites a poem in a slurred voice. You can hear decades of practice in her delivery, which has a craggly, worn-in timbre as rich as anything Sterling could create on his own. Winer's poetry is stream-of-consciousness, but one phrase sticks with me: "Really nothing ever lasts / It's very impressive / Watch the sap boil down into syrup / Sugar house in my mind." These words, every "s" elongated and emphasized, mirror the sound of Sterling's music itself, where sounds constantly morph, melt and solidify into new shapes, like thick syrup boiling, cooling and hardening. "Fragments are all I trust," she says later. Fragments are all you get on Turn Of Phrase, an elusive record whose pleasures play hard-to-get, slipping between your fingers just as you grasp them, like that central motif in the title track. It's the kind of beguiling quality that beckons you to listen again and again—in fact, I've probably listened to Turn Of Phrase more than any other album this year, though I don't feel much closer to understanding it than I was at the beginning. It's a must-hear for fans of IDM and generative music, though those tags don't exactly fit it, either. Turn Of Phrase collides the orchestral with the artificial into strange, fitful fragments. When they come together, it's beautiful—and when they don't, it's never anything less than astonishing.
  • Tracklist
      01. Eris 02. Turn Of Phrase 03. Rage Aria 04. Decay Time 05. Exuding Latex 06. Speaking In The Tongues Of Angels 07. Tremble Happy 08. 2nd Person Chamber Music 09. Tenderness feat. Leslie Winer 10. Sumup