I’m not going to deny that it can be fun getting caught up in the details of an album’s production, particularly when Ghil has such a first-class selection of features to flaunt: a reputable Korean cellist; Stephen O’Malley’s Editions Mego imprint; a second-hand portable tape recorder; a hydroelectric power plant; and an Oslo back alley. It was inevitable that I’d leap at this record with a fistful of intrigue and exuberant fascination for the avant-garde; there was never any question. The only trouble is that, in spite of all the seductive trimmings, the majority of tracks on Okkyung Lee’s latest album doesn’t quite hold up to the ideas that permeate around the edges.
Lee has spoken before about how she won’t realize the inspiration for a piece until it’s complete, only then will the concept slot together. From the perspective of a listener, that makes it very difficult to discuss structural elements within her sound, such as influence and progression. But if one were to go stabbing around in the gloom, it would appear that the most recurring tendency on Ghil is the examination of threshold. This not only accounts for the strained, claustrophobic display of tight and rigid workout she puts her cello through, but in her expectations of the audience and the gauze through which these aural root canals are presented.
Lasse Marhaug, the Norwegian artist who recorded the album, captures the threshold of each twisted reverberation as it bleeds out through the fibers of Lee’s bow. He experiments with equipment in a way that mirrors the techniques of musicians, like Leszek Mozdzer, who laces recording gear in the most peculiar crevices of his piano to capture stern, organic resonance, or Colin Stetson, who surrounds his saxophone with microphones to isolate noise and melody. While such procedures allow for an up-close-and-personal approach, the resulting music on Ghil etches and bellows about with little regard for an entry point, which disregards the precise nature of production choices that have been made here.
Each recording was captured during a single take — no overdubs — and although this comes as little surprise on playback, the results make for a cryptic assortment of skewed compromise. While the stronger, more forceful pieces at the tail end of the LP demonstrate how incredible this stripped-down, lo-fi approach might sound, they also expose the cold, snapping, and disembodied fractures of “The Crow Flew After Yi Sang” and “The Space Beneath My Grey Heart” as distractions void of both substance and strategy. Listening to these latter offerings conjures a range of fleeting snapshots, all of which revert to the notion of threshold, but they achieve very little in physically testing it: those final few nerves splitting as the dentist tugs at a damaged tooth; the ultimate gory snap of a disdainful lover, hurling some insult after a row; or the weightless and indistinguishable straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The music that invokes such distant imagery is raw and rigid from the start, and that fits appropriately with the barebones angle at which the record has been tackled. Take “Strictly Vertical,” which mangles sharp and jagged bow thrusts with swift scrapes and scratches; it sounds like opposing forces squabbling all feeble as they come into contact with each other. It’s picky and unfocused in a way that showcases a knack for testing the boundaries of abstract filler as opposed to the illustration of an accomplished craft. The same strategy occurs on “Two Perfectly Shaped Stones,” a track title that wonderfully describes the preceding interludes, but that has almost no distinguishable character itself. “Cheol-Khot” and “Hollow Water” both exemplify a more focused and refined display of avant cello orchestration, while “Stones” — a track that defies the combined total of the former pieces in length — is an empty fidget, an entanglement that might be intriguing from the perspective of the recording process, but is altogether unassuming and tired.
What makes these shortfalls so frustrating is the fact that the concluding tracks are absolutely killer. Without warning, you are thrust into a sonic landscape that is still raw and damaged, but also raging and corrosive. These final accomplishments are a gut-wrenching testament to the potential both Lee and Marhaug possess. “Meolly Ganeun” is just sensational; although it builds into a lengthy spasm of high-frequency assault, it’s a cross pollination of disintegrated Korean folk and noise that retains a feeling of gritted malice. “Over The Oak, Under The Elm” then washes across the scene — a bitter caress of scaling hiss and static that launches into some technically astounding tonal shifts. Curiously, it’s this closing couplet that sounds as though it has received the most mastering. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but throughout the record’s eventual 14 minutes, it seems obvious where the most care was taken.
Ghil is an album that’s shaped by ideas, but driven by a sound that’s often disengaged. It peaks where external components — like whether or not the cassette recorder was secondhand, or which Akershus peninsula the track was recorded on — cease to matter. The most exciting, powerful, and devastating sequences are all exposed when those redundant details are ditched and you can feel the force of these brutal recordings for what they really are: a dark and rebellious expression of the soul.