Half A True Day


It was at the end of the 80s - just before Tumble was released - that I happened to consciously think for the first time of Biota's music (their aesthetic? their language? their grammar?) as being without a doubt the most innovative one I had listened to in a long, long time. I discovered the group more or less by chance, while perusing the most recent catalogue of their UK record company, ReR. I was looking for something different that could reawaken my interest in music, something that at the time appeared to be a bit dormant due to the endless, growing tide of mediocrities being released that I had to confront every day.

That was the starting point: a copy of the newly re-released LP Horde, an album by the musical/visual collective called Mnemonists that revealed unforeseen vistas to me. It was with a growing sense of curiosity that I followed the rest of the story: Rackabones (1985) by Biota, at first only an offshoot of Mnemonists; Bellowing Room (1987); Tinct (1988); the 10" vinyl LP Awry (1988); Tumble (1989), Biota's first CD. It was while listening to Tumble, where the collective's already large canvas was enriched by even more colours, that that fateful word came to me: "masterpiece".

At the same time, I couldn't help but notice the deafening silence surrounding Biota's work. In a way, this was only logical: ReR had never possessed the kind of money that makes it possible for one to buy those beautiful pages of colour advertisements that will easily put an artist in the top range of a magazine's list of priorities. (A few years later, I was a bit surprised when I heard that Biota's albums on ReR, which I had always assumed to be all steady sellers, if not exactly a cash cow, hadn't really sold that much. This at time when "sound" was a topic at the centre of anybody's attention.)

On the other hand, my problem was that I had always considered the concept of "innovation" as going hand-in-hand with that of "controversy". Hadn't it been like that with people like Monk, Taylor, Coleman, Braxton, and the like? Hadn't the audience revolted at the premiere of... (a work by Stravinsky, I think)? And what about Zappa? The only parallel I could think of was with Tod Dockstader: a (non)musician who created a highly individual music of distinctive colours who had been declared "persona non grata" by Academia, as a non-academic. And just like the music by Mnemonists/Biota, Dockstader's music was definitely born in the studio.

Indeterminacy - but I think that "non-univocal meaning" is the preferable expression here - has always been a distinctive feature of Biota's work, with all the types of dangers that stem from inhabiting this modern "no man's land". To put it in a nutshell, it appeared to me that in the course of their voyage from Horde to Tumble the group had gradually arrived at formulating a language. At the same time, alas!, the growing democratization of the possibility to have easy access to the "electronic" means of production - the studio and tapes in the first place, soon followed by every device that could produce and modify sound - flooded the audience with an unprecedented quantity of "indeterminacy", and also with the whole burden of trying to "find" a meaning in those sounds. And as soon as that perfect synonymous of "modernity" - the laptop - appeared the circle was complete.

Though processed in highly ingenious ways, Biota's sounds have always seen the physical performance of an instrument - be it common, unusual or invented - as their starting point. The great amount of space given to the acoustic guitars and to the accordion, the piano, and a certain melodic linearity made Tumble a (relatively) accessible work. Not really a step forward, Almost Never (1992) was a step sideways: the amount of space given to James Gardner's flugelhorn - and the fact that Gardner wrote some pieces on his own - made it impossible for the listener not to think about some Davis pages. One also noticed the "vocal" role the instrument had in the music.

Listening to Object Holder (1995) was a disconcerting experience: the group had recorded an album of... songs!, with a female vocalist as the main instrument. The voice of Susanne Lewis is for this writers one of the ugliest and graceless around, so listening to the album was not easy for me. But well beyond the identity of the vocalist, it was the concept of the project that was quite mysterious for me: the human voice is fatally bound to occupy centre stage at the expense of all else, while it had always been its "democratic" - and mysterious - palette, where no colour was dominating for too long, that had been the group's main feature. Quite paradoxically, the most beautiful track for this writer was the one (without a title) that closed the album, which featured just an accordion and an "almost white noise".

Invisible Map (2001) was much better: the featured voice (Genevieve Heistek's) I found better, and its role was greatly reduced, compared to Object Holder; but the whole proved to be unsatisfying for me: something that sounded a bit "tired" in the instrumental parts, which now started sounding a bit mannered; while those moments where vocals were featured appeared as they were aiming at a strange "folk" simplicity. So I arrived at the sad conclusion that it appeared like Biota and I had already parted our ways.

So it's obvious that I wasn't expecting much from Biota's new CD. Let's just say that I had not much hope left. And so I had not waited for the release of Half A True Day with my temperature rising. Readers can well picture my astonishment in listening to a fantastic, innovative work that in some ways could be considered as being the group's best. And since I'm quite conscious of the danger of being possessed by premature enthusiasm, I listened to this album for quite some time, just to make sure. I have to say I was favourably impressed each and every time.

Half A True Day is a difficult album. Not at all harsh. But it possesses a plurality of meanings that call for repeated listening sessions (in a quiet, serene environment - this we knew already, right?). A complex work, maybe (I guess) it will be more difficult for those who already know Biota (they will probably have to reset their expectations about the group) than for newcomers. It has the mysterious softness of Tumble, though at the same time being very different.

Let's start by saying that the sound of the album is quite pleasant, not harsh and bright like its two immediate predecessors (better converters this time?). Object Holder and Invisible Map had a sound that was a bit on the rude side; here the sound encourages the listener to turn the volume up, in order to better explore the complex relationships existing between the various layers. Those famous "index points" are back, indicating the tracks' "internal separation". Again, we also have voices (for the most part, Kristianne Gale's, I think), but in my opinion this time the group hit the bull's eye: at pretty low volume, mostly in the background, processed and looped, here voices become just another instrument in the palette.

My first impression was one of déjà vu. Not in the sense that the work sounded derivative, "already known", obviously. But at times it appeared as I was listening to things I already - literally - knew; a good for instance being the "rock-blues guitar played with slide" which appears at the end of Proven Within Half/Half A True Day, which to me sounded the same as the one which starts The Trunk on Object Holder: a "splice"?

The feeling is the same when one listens to recurring melodies - like the one played by the accordion at about 30" in the first track, Figure Question, and then at the start of Pack-And-Penny Day; or the melodic phrase played as an arpeggio on the piano at the start of Just Now Maybe, then at the start and closing of Another Name, then played by a mallet percussion instrument (a marimba?) at the start of Cloud Chamber.

The whole makes one feel unsure of him/herself, with all those "motivic variations" making one think long and hard about what s/he's listening to. It goes without saying that one's ears are perennially alert for clues and signals in the background.

More often than in previous occasions, maybe, I seemed to notice similarities with things I already knew (a "Hot Tuna moment", a "Faust moment"...), but had I to mention all the things that awoke my attention... So I'll just mention the backwards vocals on Globemallow, Left Untold, and those backwards and looped on Where No One Knows. Also the organ (?) at the "index point" 3 on Passerine. Oh, and the violin, here and there.

Possible parallelisms appear, like the lonely accordion accompanied by an "almost white noise" which closes the CD bringing to one's mind the already mentioned untitled track on Object Holder. More than once, I had the feeling of "almost getting the meaning, but not quite".

Mysterious like its title, Half A True Day is an album that incorporates years of work (and it shows, in a good sense), a fact which makes it an album "from another time".

As it's well known, ReR don't have the necessary means to give eyesight to the blind, if you know what I mean. So here readers have all the burden of the discovery (also the pleasure!).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007 | Nov. 12, 2007