R Millis 120

[Etude; 2009]

Styles: field recordings, ambient, acoustic
Others: Climax Golden Twins, Sublime Frequencies

Since the mid-’90s, Robert Millis has maintained a quiet and versatile presence in American underground music. As a performer, he has delved into areas ranging from the blistering noise rock of AFCGT to the acoustic guitar improvisations of the Messenger Girls Trio. Also, as demonstrated by his compilations of ultra-rare 78 rpm records under the banner Victrola Favorites and by his global field-recording expeditions with Sublime Frequencies, Millis seems to be in constant search of the most obscure sounds he can lay his hands on. Of all his musical endeavors, however, Millis is perhaps most well known as a member of the Seattle outfit Climax Golden Twins, a group that explores the kind of oddball, genre-bending style established by the Sun City Girls. (Incidentally, the two groups have formed various musical connections over the years.) All things considered, the rare emergence of a Robert Millis solo album is a tantalizing prospect and, thankfully, 120 does not disappoint.

Beginning with the crackling of old vinyl, a quirky piano sample, and the voice of a grumpy record store clerk, 120 immediately creates an oddly nostalgic mood that is reminiscent of some of Millis’ previous work. In particular, this opening sound collage would not be out of place on the Climax Golden Twins' excellent Highly Bred and Sweetly Tempered, an album that saw the group taking a detour from their more erratic tendencies in favor of a personal and intimate sound characterized by gentle acoustic melodies and dusty vocal samples. In many ways, 120 is similar in mood and content to Highly Bred and Sweetly Tempered, while adopting a more abstract, and less song-based, approach.

Averaging out at about 11 minutes each, the album’s four tracks allow Millis to fully explore the possibilities of his established methods. The aforementioned vinyl samples merge with familiar and exotic field recordings, squelching radio frequencies, and simple acoustic guitar patterns. However, what sets 120 apart the most from Millis’ earlier material is the use of sustained electronic drones and textures. Dominating much of the soundscape, these textures give the album an ambient-like quality, albeit with a fluctuating mood that is rarely heard within the genre. Over the course of a single track, various tones will meld and rise with shimmering beauty, only to be met with a looming dissonance that hints at something terrible just around the corner.

Overall, Millis’ fragmentary combination of seemingly incongruent sound sources gives 120 a sort of dream-like logic, creating a world that is as comedic as it is unsettling, as pastoral as it is surreal. Taken together, these elements lend themselves to a unique and deeply immersive listen. While it may lack the kind of instant gratification found in some of his earlier projects, 120 is still a great addition, or introduction, to Millis’ body of work.

1. 1 (40s is not good)
2. 2 (all balled up)
3. 0 (suspended)
4. (charcoal twins)

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