2CD HMS 005

Stylus Magazine
reviewed by Ethan White

posted on November 29, 2005

There's a certain (increasingly rare) breed of artist who isn't self-promoting type; works often have to be pried from the vaults of said artists by well-intentioned friends and admirers who see something special, something that deserves a wider audience. Such is the case of Clinton Williams, a.k.a. Omit, who's been creating extremely small runs of lathe-cut 7-inches and hand-dubbed cassettes from his home in rural New Zealand for some time now. Though a handful of albums have been put out on respectable labels like Corpus Hermeticum and Anomalous Records, nothing resembling a mass market release has seen the light of day. Tracer won't change that; the two-disc set, recorded back in 2001-02, originally appeared as a CD-R, has been reissued by the Helen Scarsdale Agency in a run of just 750 copies and despite a seemingly indifferent Williams.

I hate to trot out such a well-worn figure of comparison, but the whole situation is eerily similar to Max Brod's prying of short stories and incomplete novels from the hands of his friend Franz Kafka. It's not simply their shared shyness, or even the pervasive melancholy they both seem to conjure without effort; their affinity lies at a structural level. The continued appeal of Kafka's tales, nearly a century after his writing, is attributable in no small part to their being told in clear, unadorned prose. The details, ideas, or themes might be complex, but the words on the page are easy enough to understand.

Likewise, it's fairly easy to describe the Omit aesthetic: broken drum machines attempt to put themselves back together while drone spirits hover about, watching the sad, beautiful mess assemble, disperse, reassemble; occasionally some mechanical clatter or field recordings make an appearance. And yet, as with Kafka, these simple configurations seem endless; each track is an obsessively detailed gem, shining through the analog tape smudge and awkward rhythmic angles.

There's a heavy debt to 70s analog synth work here—Klaus Schulze is almost invariably referenced—but I'd extend credit to sci-fi soundtrack pioneers like Delia Derbyshire and others of the BBC Radiophonic ilk, as well as experimental guru Nurse With Wound and even a touch of Autechre's off-kilter percussive genius, albeit far less pummeling than the Sheffield duo. Most tracks are short tableaus in which the main elements emerge immediately, only to be tweaked and rearranged for the duration. The first disc, however, opens rather oddly with the twenty-one minute "Sequester"; it's more than double the length of any other piece here, and is one of two tracks to feature vocals, in the form of monotone repeated phrases. The phrases, an amalgam of automated telephone directory responses, disappear after the first three minutes; the effect resembles being put on hold, as the ominous dronescape and plodding, jangly, crackle-edged plod continue forward, punctuated occasionally by a chattering dot-matrix printer. "Link-Op" employs a similar recitation, this time reading the names of financial institutions, other large businesses, and government organs.

These disconcerting interjections of human speech into an otherwise depopulated realm help illuminate an ambiguous statement about technology in Omit's work. The processed, robotic voice is something of a cliché, but in both pieces we're still able to hear human breaths in between statements; and in "Link-Op" the sound of a page being turned is clearly audible at several points. Intentional or not, these touches of the human in the supposedly "dehumanized" point to the misconception that man and machine are somehow separate entities, when in reality they are irrevocably fused together. Like the obsessive musician who spends painstaking hours with his tools, one creates and recreates the other, and vice versa, a Mobius strip of influence, generating and regenerating into infinity.

It should be obvious by now that this is music for when the night slides into early morning, for those bleary-eyed insomniac reveries of paranoia and claustrophobia, staying up too late doing naught else but letting one's imagination get too active. Tracer exists on this precarious edge of disintegration, making its repetitive structures not tedious but fascinating, hypnotic. Every decaying echo, distant pulse, and frayed bit of static is important; these fringe areas are where the voices come out, dancing deep in the recesses of perception, slowly winding their way through the subconscious. It's unsettling in the best possible way, and like Kafka, deserves a much broader appreciation.