Most music is only understood within a specific cultural context. Rarely is a
song respected or admired without a clear understanding of its place on the
dialogical timeline, whether it's due to the genre they fall under or the
"scene" in which they arose. For example, could an album like Wilco's Yankee
Hotel Foxtrot be as respected and admired without knowing the story behind
it, or if it came out in the late 70s, or if it was written by KKK members? And
on a separate, albeit similar note, most of these forms of popular music conform
to both verse-chorus-verse structures and teleological principles (e.g. tension
& release, arcs, buildups, climaxes, etc) — delayed gratification, one might
But what if there was music that didn't rely solely on context and the
teleological principle? What if there was music made purely for the sake of
sound, and only that? This is where Phill Niblock and his latest album, Touch
Food, come in. Niblock is known for his digitally-processed microtonal
drones, monolithic music that features
little-to-no variation, experienced "in the moment," and not in
sections and parts. His lengthy pieces usually revolve around one pitch, and
throughout their fleeting existences, Niblock lets the music suspend itself in
time. He doesn't create waves of crescendos, dramatic buildups, or cathartic
releases; instead, he lets the pieces unfold subtly and modestly, taking the
listener essentially nowhere.
And that's the point. This is not music to drive to, to laugh to, to cry to.
This is music in its "purest" form; there's no bullshit teasing or playing with
emotions. Without major or minor notes (he often abstains from using the third),
the semiotics of the music is ambiguous at best. They're neither sad nor happy,
dreamy nor scary. The music is so "deadpan," you don't really know what to feel
after each song.
However, the mood to fill your body with one endless drone is not often craved.
You have to literally force yourself to listen to it. It's like choosing whether
you want to feel the music in the usual abstract sense (semiotics, emotions,
representation) or in a physical sense. Try playing this album at volume ten and
close your eyes. It'll seep into your skin and flood your nervous system,
drenching your body in rich and colorful tones. And because of its insistent
droning, you feel empty and hollow when the music ends. Not in a nostalgic
sense, where you miss the music or wish something were in its place, but an
actual feeling of emptiness.
This is music for listeners who want a challenge, who want something totally
different, who want activity instead of passivity. The music doesn't tell you
what to think or how to think or what to feel. It's yours for the taking, and
you should make the best of the opportunity. Try listening to first track "Sea
Jelly Yellow." If you feel upset afterward because it failed to "move" you or
provide some sort of emotional stimulation, you've already missed the point.
1. Sea Jelly Yellow
2. Sweet Potato
3. Yam Almost May
1-5 Pan Fried 70