Danny Clay and Greg Gorlen have both been all over the place in terms of noise making. On Birch, their muse is the piano and their various looping and destructive cassette tape approaches carry the simple melodies through a slew of different contexts. Sometimes the tape evokes a sense of archaic recording technology, elsewhere more carving out huge swaths of distortion, before drenching the instrument in reverb to bring the listener into a completely different room. The pacing of the project works well to increase the immersive nature of their longer works. At first the duo breathes out an instance of atmosphere, later carrying on the white noise for six or seven minutes. It’s a quick listen that may not stick around for the whole year, but it will certainly draw you into its world.
Although the tape technically splits after track five, it’s somewhat useful to split the eight-track list in half. The longest tracks come at the end of each half, and the tracks leading up to the sprawling numbers offer snapshots of the oncoming action. For the most part, “Birch IV” focusses its six minutes on raw distorted melodies. With a sort of call and response going on between the melodic action on the left and right side, there’s a strong sense of push and pull in the tense space. Although much more subdued, the opening track evokes this with its pair of piano voices, again underpinned by some sort of mechanistic mentality. “Birch II” gives a bit more of a glance of the static distorted landscape, with the third track receding back to the aesthetic territory of the first, making for a drastic amount of contrast at the start of the final sprawl. In doing this, Clay and Gorlen frame their big moments rather than constantly trying to create them.
The texture of the album is made interesting by the juxtaposition between the piano and the surface noise of the mechanisms behind the music. Particularly in the second half, the piano sounds untouched or distant, but it’s almost placed through the lens of the surface noise of the tape to create tension. It’s interesting to hear such purity in piano tone being toyed with by these outside occurrences. The separation of sounds makes the work obtain the effect of an ensemble rather than a prepared or altered piano.
It would be nice to hear a bit more structure in later works. The melodies are esoteric sketches that don’t develop a whole lot. Even though the album changes the sound environment a great deal from track to track there’s not always too much substance there. Perhaps with a bit more direction in the melodies, the shorter tracks could stand on their own rather than simply feeding into the energy of the longer pieces.
Birch is a beautiful work, but Clay and Gorland could do a bit more to make their work more memorable—the melodies are often a bit too fleeting to demand further listening. However, the duo has a fantastic ear for atmosphere and their creative ways of crafting tension make for an occasionally deeply immersive work.