October 1997 – album reviews – Saro Cosentino’s ‘Ones and Zeros’ (“a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop”)

15 Oct

Saro Cosentino: 'Ones and Zeros'

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’

Saro Cosentino – an art-rocker with a knack for cinematic arrangement – sees himself as the musical equivalent of a film director. This seems to be more humble than it’d suggest: it means that he masterminds the writing and production for his songs but stays in the background, passing the final responsibility for voices and lyrics to selected singers and instrumentalists.

As he puts it, “a director coordinates and selects the roles for the actors… I chose the singers and musicians for the pieces”. Perhaps a rather precious way of saying “I wrote outlines of songs for various kinds of singers, then went looking for them”, but it does give us the opportunity to play around with his metaphor.

OK. Let’s do that.

Saro, if viewed as The Great Director, reminds me of one of those European cinema auteurs – one of those talents whose childhood was inspired by Hollywood, whose initial own-language triumphs were led by a highly personal vision; but who’s now working uneasily between Hollywood and home. His true drive seems to be towards smoky, luxurious romance. Long pans across emotive vistas filled with meticulous detail, where the very light that flickers off the faces and corners of the camera’s subjects has a tangible element; the creation of bank-busting sets and tableaux to call new environments into existence, against which romantic protagonists play out their personal dramas as the world smoulders behind them.

However, at the same time he’s tempted and pressured (by studio heads? by test groups?) to go for something brasher, more obvious. Hence the same album that can boast 9:47 PM Eastern Time (twelve minutes of trading ambient loops with the Chapman Stick of King Crimson‘s Trey Gunn) can also boast the FM blare of Bite the Bullet, in which Karen Eden power-bleats the sort of hand-wringing, state-of-the-world pop hogwash that Tears for Fears cornered when they went shit in the late ’80s. Harrumph.


 
Well, whatever else one might find fault with, it can’t be disputed that Saro has assembled a high-powered instrumental cast to flesh out his own detailed wash of synths and guitars. Cellos and Anglo-Indian percussion (from Dizrhythmia’s Pandit Dinesh and Gavin Harrison) join with the works a whole crowd of Peter Gabriel regulars. There’s David Rhodes’ unorthodox, chameleonic art-guitar; the eerie wails Shankar gets from both his double electric violin and his voice; there’s the watery keen of Kudsi Erguner’s Turkish ney flute, and John Giblin’s extraordinarily vocal fretless bass – as well as the presence of regular Gabriel engineer Richard Blair to help with programming and holding it all together.

Perhaps inevitably, ‘Ones and Zeros’ emerges as a less wracked, less personal, poppier echo of Gabriel’s ‘Us’, or of Kate Bush’s ‘Sensual World’. It’s a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop, with a profound love of instrumental colorations and orchestrated with sounds of the human condition taken from all over the globe. And it does sound lovely, meticulously embroidered in luminescent glittering threads of melody.


 
Enter the Saro Multiplex, then. Pay the elegantly cropped man on the door, who’s thumbing through the Italian Art Rock Quarterly. Pick up your packet of art-popcorn from Mozo ‘n’ Rael’s Snack Shack, and take your look at the choices on offer on the different screen. I think you can assume that Bite the Bullet is the second-string drama: the one with the C-list hairdo-actress in peril, the sort that’s been sold as nail-biting but is actually more nail-varnishing. (Hear Karen Eden twitter about TV and dreamlife, wince at her gooey harmonies, dodge the pretty bomb: note the fleeting brilliance of the arrangement, and stroll out halfway through.) Go on to calculate that 9:47 PM Eastern Time is the slow-moving ‘Koyaanisquatsi’-type visual study – it’ll be playing in the room with the art students, shots tracking up skyscrapers and speculating upon the bright streak of dawn. Set aside some time to see that one right the way through. And look at the posters again.

Well, with cellos at the ready, you’ve got the choice of a slightly superior mainstream drama (maybe a maverick cop film, maybe a Joe-Bloke-in-peril job) with Defying Gravity. The one forged from the stuff of determination (“Just for an instant / of our forever, / this beggar would be King…”) and the refusal to give up, the one where you can share, for a moment, the pain of the trouper. Art-rock journeyman Jakko Jakszyk delivers one of his trademark tight, passionate vocals – the most immediate performance on the album, full of regret and a simmering outrage, the last flare of anger before resignation sets in.


 
Give Karen Eden a chance to wipe out many of the feeble memories of Bite the Bullet with Behind the Glass, on which she sounds more like Briana Corrigan than Stevie Nicks, and feels more like Juliette Binoche in ‘Three Colours: Blue’ than Sandra Bullock in a straight-to-video. Here she’s a lone, withdrawn observer, near-impassive, watching the injustices the world deals out but this time refraining from protesting. Merely letting the reaction flow out silent and free from the core of her, like a long stream of cigarette smoke. Strings poise; Giblin’s bass growls, a peril held in check and lurking. The moment passes by. Beat; cut; quick fade into black.


 
As accomplished as they are, those are the studio money-spinners, the comparative rush jobs. If you want to go for something a little more rhapsodic, you’ll have to move up a level; up to what’s showing in the smaller cinemas, where the eyes fixed on the screens are more intent.


 
When, as in these, ‘Ones and Zeros’ is good, it’s seriously good. Peter Hammill (playing against a reputation as abrasive art-rock bruiser via one of two appearances as romantic lead) offers an extraordinarily moving performance on From Far Away. You can even picture the close-up – eyes wide and bright, awestruck with the force of his own passion, breathing sheer faith into the well-worn love words; an English Sinatra without the arrogance. On Days of Flaming Youth, Shankar’s spooky keen and bright Japan-styled flecks of guitar and electronics gust in slo-mo circles while Tim Bowness takes time out from No-Man to sigh tenderness all over a song of the betrayals of younger days. It prowls and flickers, disturbing piles of trash in the corners of your memory as his voice rises to a throaty howl and gasp: “It feels so real, it feels so true, / the theft of the world that you knew / by slaves of flaming youth…”


 
Or you can enter Saro’s cinematic visions by the most inspirational way. You can just walk in off the street, numbed by loss and cradling a broken heart in hands gone suddenly cold (as I’ve just done) and find the core of your predicament captured and held, mirrored, onscreen. This is Phosphorescence – a ‘Brief Encounter’ for the art-rock set, and the album’s crowning glory. Hammill again, under a black velvet dome of sky, afloat on a sea of reflected starlight and rippling fluorescent eel-trails with reed-flutes undulating past, a thrill and a breeze on the cheek. And a lyric of something almost unbearably affecting. A love that hits in one slow flash (“this moment lasts a thousand years, this look is longer than our lives…”), changes you irrevocably then passes on, never to be caught or held again. “We will never pass this way again / But we’ll always feel each other’s presence… Ships pass in the night, / and in their wake they leave just phosphorescence…”


 
And you’re left stunned in the dark as the credits roll, unable to move from your seat for the things that are crowding up in you. Hit to the heart. Light-struck.

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’
Resurgence, RES 129CD (604388203222)
CD-only album
Released:
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand. ‘Ones and Zeros’ was reissued in 2015 in remixed and remastered form as ‘Ones and Zeros Reloaded’: all videos included in this review are from the ‘Reloaded’ version.
Saro Cosentino online:
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