I could take the easy route first and say that if you’ve heard ‘No Pussyfooting’, you’ve more or less heard ‘Thin Air’. But that’d be a weaselling statement: technically correct but still untrue, and also of neither use nor value to you. As if I said that the most important defining characteristic of an apple was that it was round and green, and thought that that was all there was to it.
Yes – it is true that the Bearpark/Chilvers album is very Fripp & Eno (or a close musical cousin to Richard Pinhas). Its five tracks (titled, without fuss, One to Five) make up a little under an hour of droning, buzzing, looped Les Paul guitar textures and minimal synth. It comes in scraping waves and langorous tides, sometimes broken by a tightly-controlled welling of overdriven melody. The Frippertronics comparison is more than appropriate: it’s exact. Here is the same methodology, and similar equipment – although Peter Chilvers’ digital keyboards and hard-drive recording are far removed from Eno’s primitive VCS3 and Revoxes back in 1972.
But with that said, we can move on to the distinctions. It’s the same methodology, yes – but with a different intent. Fripp & Eno were taking a vacation from disciplined, cunningly constructed early ’70s art-rock when they made ‘No Pussyfooting’. While they’ll have absorbed the same influences second-hand (not least through Fripp and Eno themselves), Bearpark and Chilvers’ active roots lie in the lusher ambient fields of the ’80s, the small home thoughts of the ’90s, and elsewhere. For feeding grounds there’s been the avant-garde songwriter croon of Samuel Smiles (of which, together, they make up half the line); the ethereal, tranquillised nu-folk of Chilver’s Alias Grace project; and the remarkable extended electrophonic improvising of Darkroom in which Michael coaxes and abuses guitar, and in which Peter occasionally guests on subliminal bass noises.
Consequently, ‘Thin Air’ simply doesn’t have the same flavour as ‘No Pussyfooting’ – although there’s a case to be made for its relationship with the subsequent ‘Evening Star’ centerpiece Wind On Water, or indeed with David Sylvian’s Fripp-starring Gone To Earth. The music here is more accepting of meditative flows and of fallings-into-place than Fripp & Eno’s passive-aggressive merger of science and chance, where the tones bristled like affronted scholars even as they delivered their assertions. New Age it’s not, though; finding a rich and revealing depth as it surrenders to the floating moment. As One progresses, Peter’s keyboards become more predominant as well as more sacramental in tone; swelling in sermon-ish washes or setting out tiny, meditative piano lines like an English Roedelius. Three sees him levitate a celestial synth in a bathe of high, light sounds over a sawing, working guitar loop, ending in what feels oddly like a High Church benediction.
Michael Bearpark – though he’s a Fripp-ish soundpainter for sure – has a very different musical personality. Dirtier, more repressed and seething than Fripp’s near-religious passion and pilgrim’s drive to grace, his slow-hand playing is actually more bloody-handed; sometimes leaning on notes as if he was trying to crush them, or to push their heads underwater and drown them. And there’s a strong element of filtered, chemically refined blues welling through the music; an ultra-distilled moan of frustration and clenched force, adding an extra human bite to the industrial friction sounds that gnaw gently in the background. All of the above makes his ultimate surrender to the trance more affecting.
What’s most revealing is what the two musicians give to each other in this context. Michael’s drawn-out, demanding focus draws Peter away from his tendencies to sober prettiness. In turn, Peter’s thoughtful but assertive calm (the pastor to the guitarist’s restless congregation) helps Michael to allay his own wayward illbient tendencies. And fortunately the result’s a compound of the two, rather than a dilution. If Two has the tightest discipline (a deep comforting growl of a bass loop, a starlit synth chord journeying from space to space in the stretched weave of guitar patterns), Four is a fall-apart – a dissolving narcosis of disintegrating guitar arpeggios over the looping waft of a nearly-was organ. Five is an absent farewell, looped up and down like a slow-motion roller coaster at midnight. The attention is elsewhere, but it’s gently captivating.
Yes, in terms of equipment lists and step-by-step instructions, this is something you’ve heard before. But one thing Michael Bearpark and Peter Chilvers prove on ‘Thin Air’ is that, whatever the gear and gizmos, this kind of process music is formed first and foremost by personalities – not by equations, function maps or manuals.
Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’
PeopleSound, 270370 (no barcode)
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The original PeopleSound CD-R is now long-deleted and best obtained second-hand. The album has been reissued as a CD-R by Burning Shed.