Coldness and the lack of feeling – an odd association to make, if you can remember the feel of a fragment of ice held in the intimacy of your mouth or your hand. Something not lacking but, rather, almost too intense; shocking the flesh so that you can only touch it by degrees. Something that slowly changes as it becomes closer to what you are, and is consumed by the process.
By these standards, as well as by immediate impressions, Cipher’s ‘No Ordinary Man’ is a very cold album – it’s something intimate, but in an unusual way. Unquestionably this is beautiful music, but it’s the kind of music which would play in your mind while you lay immobilized on an Arctic snowbank, watching, with a hypnotized joy, the glow of the Northern Lights even as you slipped deeper and deeper into exposure and a chilly coma. Cipher’s music is unadorned, passive, slow and sparse in resolution (if it ever resolves at all) and it’s quiet: but it also has its own burning chill, changing the air around it. Former Jade Warrior Dave Sturt’s minimal, expressive forays on fretless bass float upfront or squash deep valleys into the music. Theo Travis‘ pale and lovely lines on soprano sax and flute hang like solitary albatrosses, beyond the programmed loops and sounds which both men come up with together.
There’s a lot of Nordic-style ECM clarity and mournfulness here: Jan Garbarek is certainly a constant touchstone for listeners, if not necessarily for the players. The slow, measured bleeding-in of Theo’s psychedelic influences (along with Dave’s leaning towards both electronic ambience and Celtic airs) means that there’s more to Cipher’s music than you could find from simply haunting Garbarek’s footsteps from fjord to fjord. However, these additional elements end up tinting the music rather than colouring it. It retains its own arresting static integrity while remaining entirely open to the outside; so that even when such superbly individual guest texturalists as Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri are linked to the Cipher core they blend in perfectly, adding another layer of ever-so-slightly disturbing atmosphere.
Cipher’s particular skill is to balance lightly and enigmatically on the cusp between that obvious ECM-flavoured tastefulness and the more psychoactive disturbances of dark electronica. As such they constantly, subtly, put the listener on the wrong foot with a delightful unease. Given that it’s a contemporary soundtrack not just to an early Jack the Ripper film but to one by the young Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger is appropriately creepy. Theo haunts the upper air past the smokily building, menacing wind patterns: Dave offers glassy, melodic spindles of rotating bass.
A Far Cry deliberately undermines associations. The trapped gaiety of a looped-and-buried fairground calliope contradicts the sad, syncopated stagger of backwards tones that makes up the body of the track and underlays Dave and Theo’s unusually intense, bloodshot calling. Dank electronic drips and shades from Richard Barbieri form the environment of Canyon, beneath the dreamy electronic ripples and the drifts of sax and bass. The foreboding swells of Dusk suggest a disturbance just out of memory range, probed in shifting tones.
It’s the panorama of landscapes, both material and psychological, which predominates. Listening to Bodhidharma, with its little glitters of distant guitar, is like watching vapour ascend slowly out of a crater; while it shares something with Robert Fripp’s diaphanous Soundscapes, it’s also the point where unconnected post-rock bands like Labradford and Bark Psychosis suddenly meet, blink away tears and touch. Desert Song, in contrast, dips more obviously towards New Age. In its flamboyance, it recalls the underrated mystic-Mexicana of Alquimia with its extended slow-motion boom of synth and its garnish of throat-singing samples: however, the passionate tug of Rabbi Gaddy Zerbib’s devotional Hebrew vocals pulls it forcefully back into the real world. White Cloud, Blue Sky sees Theo playing bleakly over disintegrating tones somewhere between disturbed wind-chime and the expansive empty-gallery guitar Bill Frisell uses to paint his pictures of America.
The Waiting, though, is pure dreamscape. A simple shaker and cymbal rhythm is joined by Theo’s moody searching sax gliding in the sky. Dave’s tingling gulp of bass swallows at the ground, and a growing textural bristle of ringing tones and alien electronics builds in some blurry area between birdcall and gauze. Eventually all is submerged in a hallucinatory backwards dissolve.
It’s left to the title track (the straightest piece on the album, and also the finale) to bridge the ever-shifting gap between Cipher’s abstraction and their empathy. Essentially a free-floating blue-haze trio of bass, piano and ravishing alto flute, it hearkens back to a clutch of comparisons: Bill Evans, Miroslav Vitous, the spacey world-jazz of Dizrhythmia and – finally – Rain Tree Crow’s pattering, mysterious finale, Cries And Whispers (enclosed as it is both in sensous brushes of electronic air and a distant-walled cavern echo of Eastern-sounding percussion). Far from ordinary, and far from freeze-dried. Cold fingers can stimulate too.
Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’
Voiceprint/Hidden Art (HI-ART 5, 60438845732)
Released: 1st October 1999
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