- It’s a little hard to keep track of Meanjin / Brisbane duo Primitive Motion. Sandra Selig and Leighton Craig have pumped out around twelve EPs and full-length records (my rough estimate) at the pace of roughly one every year and they’ve -nearly but not quite- gone through as many styles in the process. Beginning in the way-back-when of 2011 they sounded like a murky, experimental pop band, emerging from the echoing, DIY beyond.
Since then, as Lawrence English -who has been on occasion offering both mastering and record label assistance- puts it, they have “gently unlocked a uniquely divergent soundworld that haunts the fringes of folk, krautrock, lof-fi pop and foggy electronics.” Their territory is probably even more wide-ranging than that description suggests and I struggle to find in amongst that lot a theme which unites their entire catalogue, bar a very enthusiastic willingness to pick up whatever instrument, or even simply sound that they happen to come across (hint: there are a lot) and use them in whatever fashion takes their fancy at the time.
Where does 2023 and their latest release, Portrait Of An Atmosphere find them? Well as divergent as ever. I guess the most obvious thing about these six big slices of sound is how different the ‘atmosphere’ is by comparison to the rest of the Primitive Motion oeuvre. As Craig says in the liner notes, they made the brave decision to forgo much of the reverb and delay that usually wrap PM's music in echoes. Anyway, I guess that makes it little bit more high-def, so it's easier to tell it's not really ambient or drone and also that it’s certainly not one of their ‘pop’ records, with nary a three minute ear-worm of drum-machine in sight.
You do still find that almost insatiable appetite I described earlier, for picking up instruments and jamming out what’s in Sandra and Leighton’s shared mindscape. I haven’t seen any instrumentation credits for Portrait, which is a departure, they usually publish a list of anything up to twenty different instruments they’ve been fiddling with. Notably, there’s very often very little -virtually nothing- rhythmic, even when there is percussion present, creating something that verges on the formless, on occasion. What little structure there is often comes from repeated melodic patterns.
This begins with an acoustic guitar’s simple arpeggiated twang on Portrait I, against which Sandra’s haunting, wordless vocals play counterpoint. If I had to compare it to anything it would be an Ennio Morricone soundtrack (really, there’s whistling) stripped back to its uttter fundaments and re-imagined in the most DIY fashion possible.
The sound begins to mutate towards track’s end and then Portrait II picks up flute and cymbal and all sorts of things, including field recordings of a crowd scene and a melodica. It returns to the acoustic theme of the first Portrait on occasion. The Morricone western soundtrack illusion is finally shattered, however, by samples of someone twirling the tuner on a radio.
Portrait III actually does slip into a little reverb to complement modal melodies played on middle-eastern sounding brass, pressed up against patterns played on accordion, among other things. Again, if I had to compare this to anything, this one has more percussion than most and it’s kinda like one of those hypnotic loopscapes dreamed up by The Necks; but again, very DIY and super-stripped-back.
The ten minute enormity of the final Portrait IV is perhaps my favourite. Eerie piano chords again betray a little more reverb in the production and there's gentle gusts of wind instruments and voice. The whole procession of Portraits has been melancholy, but this final installment is just about creepy, like the journey is coming to an unsettling end. Stabs of zithery strings send shivers up the spine. Things end with an enigmatic and untreated pattern on guitar and keys, suggesting an epiphany of some kind.
That epiphany would be the final number, Trenches Of Time. A separate entity to the through-composed Portrait suite, its tingling chimes and discordant vocals are rubbed up against a metallic drone. It feels like the listener has been abducted from whatever environment they were in and beamed into some harsh, alien landscape where incomprehensible technologies occasionally make themselves felt via indistinct burbles of very computerised sounding synth. I have a feeling the characters that took this aural journey, may have gone to a place from which they can never return.
Is it stating the obvious to say that a Primitive Motion record is a strange one? Portrait Of An Atmosphere feels stranger than most, however. Its through-composed nature makes it sound like a soundtrack, while its brave decision to expose such uncompromisingly DIY elements and moody, haunting harmonies, makes me think that the music would best accompany a film collaboratively directed by Roger Corman and John Carpenter. It’s certainly a Primitive Motion record, even if it doesn’t sound quite like any one of so very many that came before. Sandra Selig and Leighton Craig will continue to do just as they like, even if it means transporting their listeners to an alien world from which there is no return.
- Chris Cobcroft.