The packaging aesthetic of London-via-Nottingham based Johnny Scarr’s Mantile label suits Spoils & Relics to a tee; recycled card with grainy, degraded and indeterminate images of dubious provenance; hand-stamped titles evoking a production-line gone askew; and each release on cassette, that medium so beloved of bloody-minded advocates of the warmth, tactile enjoyment and inconvenience of the near obsolete format. And you can’t get much more tactile than this: Scarr, Gary Myles, Kieron Piercy and Mark Durgan molest their homemade, repurposed and customised electronics with a grubby hands-on physicality, inserting their fingers into the guts of their machinery, beating, caressing or palpating its outer surfaces, in some cases tugging fisted reels of tape through its spools or adding their own fitful current to the exposed circuits.These three releases see Spoils & Relics progressing rapidly. Dependent Arising is a good entry point to the bedrock of their sound, in which field recordings and scavenged tapes are stretched, spliced and layered until the sounds produced bear next to no resemblance to the original materials. Yet enough ambience remains to imprint itself firmly within the grain of the music, producing a gestalt of places and times in which multiple physical locations literally seem to buckle, warp and melt and into each other. It’s a frothy, meaty mix; every time it seems to stabilise the tape is wrenched again, each new construct ruthlessly demolished, resolutely unquiet. What’s even more disquieting is the resemblance of many of the sounds to guttural, wordless vocalisations. As one location becomes another the very rocks seem to cry out. A.O.N. takes the shifting, treacherous locations of Dependent Arising and both populates them and delineates the kinds of events that might take place there. There is movement all around; the stereo field is wide open, with intrusions from the far left and right, snaking between the two. Beautifully controlled oscillations and pulses burst and flower briefly before fading, slow rising drones insinuate themselves, while elsewhere spasmodic lurching, groans and piercing cries coalesce into what sounds like the ritual dismemberment of a whole farmyard before giving way into more recognisably human chanting.
It’s all compelling, brilliantly realised stuff… yet nothing quite prepares the listener for the third of these releases. On All Mistakes Straightened these strategies are further honed into a kind of free improvisation that eschews some of the more problematic baggage of that approach. There is neither extended technique nor the rejection of idiom; the instrumentation never had a conventional technical repertoire or stylistic associations to begin with. The interactivity between the players manages to be boisterous and unmannered at the same time as meticulously ordered and paced, allowing for silence, conversation, debate and outright argument throughout its twenty minute running time. It’s the kind of result that can only be achieved through rigourous preparation: even when all parties are talking across each other the mix clearly details the beautifully separated strata of complementary frequencies.The Mantile website positions the recording of this outstanding session as taking place during the preparation phase for Durgan and Spoils & Relics’ collaboration at the Lowest Form of Music Festival, and states that it primarily uses recordings of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. However, the source material is almost entirely occulted by their strategies, with free improvisation – these days a proposition that seems to operate within strictly policed parameters – twisted out of shape into something more flexible and unencumbered, while still retaining the distinctive flavour of the previous two releases.
So, three consecutive must-have tapes from a label that’s establishing quite a reputation for consistent quality. My footie fan Dad would call that a hat-trick.