- If you ever need a reality check, take a moment to remember that, in the last fifty years, human activity has wiped out seventy-percent of all vertebrate species. Call me a complete sourpuss (yeah, fair), but I often find myself a little offended when I see cartoon animals capering around in advertising, big smiles on their furry faces, as though they’re blissfully unaware that their human friends are sending them hurtling toward extinction. Goodness me, what a bleak way to begin talking about Nonsemble’s latest record, Archaeopterix.
Don’t worry, all the creatures depicted on this EP were pre-extinct! That’s right, Chris Perren’s ‘indie-chamber’ outfit have, as usual, fuelled their artistic endeavours with some fairly intellectual food-for-thought. In this case, each of the six compositions aim to evoke some of the mega-avians that flew the ancient skies and strode the antediluvian land, in the times long before us.
Not that there’s much escaping the sorry state of the planet, right now, but perhaps the main reason I’m trying to ruin your day there, is because Nonsemble never will? From their earliest Philip Glass-ish ‘techno-optimism’ (2013’s Practical Mechanics) through the inhuman mathematical beauty of Go Segen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke and even the complete failure of the techno-optimist project in the moldering innards of the ‘Bucky Balls’ depicted in their sonic imagining of Spaceship Earth, Perren and crew never sound like it’s getting them down.
There are definitely cases to be made for the comparisons that Nonsemble get to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and 65daysofstatic, but when this lot makes skeletal math-rock, roaring post-rock, or highly arty industrial, it’s never an excuse to sound bummed out about things. Archaeopterix is actually their first release in seven years (where does the time go!) but if you’ll forgive the pun, everyone here is still quite chirpy.
There’s an undeniable sense of awe wafting out of the reverb in opener, Pelagornis. That’s only appropriate when you’re thinking about a prehistoric super-pelican, soaring in the updrafts above Miocene oceans. Is it just me or are the electronics more prominent than on previous Nonsemble outings? Chris Perren’s contribution of beats and all sorts of synthetic sounds subsume the string quartet. I notice that Jon Hopkins has found his way on to Nonsemble’s influence list, just as his ambient techno has found its way into many of the most discerning ears in the last decade; I'm definitely thinking Perren's quite a devoted disciple. At any rate, this also sounds like the moment when Laura Dern and Sam Neil meet some truly enormous herbivores … but in Nonsemble’s imagination, nothing goes wrong, the awe never ends.
I love Phorusrhacos, which has the energy of a mathematical equation transformed into an infectious folk reel. Again however, this soundtrack for a creature variously described as an ‘Emu from hell’ or ‘terror bird’ evokes joy, not the sensation that we’re about to be devoured. By contrast, Harpargornis is more reserved, as though this eagle -big enough to prey on the similarly enormous Moa- was high in the sky, rather than plunging towards a hapless victim. The vast vulture of Argentavis, too, is more concerned with surveying its wide domain than instilling the fear that must surely have been its due.
Flight Feathers is the most serene of all the moments on Archaeopterix, full of string glisses and the ambience of the upper stratosphere. If you’ve ever seen Pitch Black, it’s reminiscent of the fluting call of that movie’s winged, nocturnal predators, but, as usual, in Nonsemble’s hands there’s no cause for alarm. The EP’s title track is also its closer and it’s the first time I’ve had cause to think of John Adams, thanks to its distinctive, angular rhythmic patterns. It sounds the most like the Nonsemble of old and celebrates the famous, winged dino with a racing, thundering tribute.
All these dinosaurs and all this epic, instrumental music, it’s hard not to keep coming back to film soundtracks. It’s funny though, I’ve often complained that the movies do … pretty much the opposite to Nonsemble: it’s all science pessimism, with crazy boffins coming up with ever more ludicrous ideas that are sure to destroy the human race; when will they learn!? However, I have a strong feeling that if we’re ever going to get out of the mess we’re in, we’ll need a lot of very talented scientists to have any kind of chance at all. I’m in a kind of a whirl of cognitive dissonance, with the planet failing, animals dropping dead everywhere and humans saying “that’s all very well, but what about the economy?” What place does optimism even have in this world? Still, to listen to Nonsemble its impossible not to feel a stirring of inspiration, of awe. I think the mighty Archaeopterix may have done its dash, but perhaps there remains the faintest glimmer of hope for the human race.
- Chris Cobcroft.