BJ Nilsen The Invisible City

[Touch ; 2010]

Styles: electronica, ambient, drone
Others: Machinefabriek, Lawrence English, Fennesz

Swedish musician BJ Nilsen has a well-deserved reputation as one of the preeminent sound artists operating today. His standard procedure consists of electronically-treating field recordings — often of animals and natural environments — and combining them with traditional instruments that are usually rendered unrecognizable. You’re never sure what exactly you’re hearing when listening to a Nilsen album. While knowing his methods is in no way a prerequisite to enjoying his music, you’ll probably hear his albums differently once you know how they’re constructed.

The Invisible City consists of eight soundscapes that hover somewhere between the relative clean sounds of Oren Ambarchi and the noisier sides of Pita or Fennesz. The typical track has a solid, rarely wavering drone as its base, with sounds layered on as the piece progresses. At times, it sounds like Nilsen is improvising in real time on top of carefully constructed tracks, as sounds weave in and out of the mix. This approach works best in longer durations: while some of the shorter tracks are cut off before they truly get interesting, there are three 10-minute-plus tracks here that take full advantage of the length.

It all makes for an intense listen that draws you in, but the pieces take on yet another dimension when you read the liner notes. In addition to stringed instruments like guitars and violas, Nilsen uses a heap of electronic equipment of apparently vintage or analogue make. He also lists something called a “virtual Hammond organ,” which sounds remarkably similar to a real one but with a slightly queasy sheen to it. Then, of course, there are the field recordings he’s most known for, including everything from bumblebees buzzing around and cats walking across a floor to footsteps on snow and an amplified chair dragged across the floor.

Despite all the differing sounds, the album retains a consistent tone throughout, yet this also works against it. At over an hour, more variety would have been welcome; it’s easy for The Invisible City to slip into the background, warm and dozy, until a loud tonal burst comes along to shake you up. And while it’s surprisingly uncluttered given the amount of components listed for each track, you’ll have to strain hard to discern any of it from the austere mix. It’s an album that clearly needs attentive ears, but if you’re listening without knowing of the ‘instrumentation’ or Nielsen’s m.o., you’d never guess what lay hidden in these tracks — and even if you know what’s there, I’m pretty sure you’ll be hard pressed to isolate the sound of “dead trees leaning against each other.”

Links: BJ Nilsen - Touch

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