Black Box Recordings - Eight Transmissions from an Agitated Radio Pilot
Irishman Dave Colohan is a central figure in the United Bible Student movement, his voice unmistakable, his presence always felt. When you get your hands on an Agitated Radio Pilot release (they can be elusive) and wrap your ears around its melancholy pleasures, it's clear that the music of ARP is a conduit for Colohan's most personal thoughts and feelings, which are presented unfiltered (mostly) by the collaborative imperatives of other familial projects like United Bible Studies and Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree. When seven ARP releases came across my desk in a quite short space of time, the opportunity to round 'em up and make some kind of sense of the project's progress seemed too good to pass up. For the sake of completeness Your Turn to Go It Alone, which was received somewhat earlier (though still in 2006), is included.
Let's kick off with At the First Sign of Frost, which was originally self-released on cassette in 1997 and was later reissued as a CDR on the Deadslackstring label. It has been unavailable for a goodly while now but can now be downloaded for free from the Deserted Village Last Fm page. This is a trend to be wholeheartedly applauded, as there is nothing that puts one in the right frame of mind for further exploration than elements of an artist's unobtainable back-catalog being provided for free. An atmospheric and relatively low-tech set of recordings, the 17 songs and instrumentals on Frost recall the heyday of the cassette Portastudio underground, with delicate observational folk-noir that sits nicely alongside the best output of key 90s labels like Xpressway and Siltbreeze. Alastair Galbraith and the Kitchen Cynics especially come to mind. There are moments when distressed drum machine parts head off at a tangent to the main proceedings like startled sheep, but Colohan was a gifted songwriter even at this early stage and ultimately that carries the day. That and the occasional surprising course change like the blistering eight minute psych-rock instrumental workout "Forgotten Heroes of Aviation", which could comfortably sit on an early Flyte Reaction LP.
Dave hails from Goldsmith Country - a reach of County Westmeath centered on Glasson at the county's western end. The area is named for Ireland's world-renowned 18th century poet, Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith's writings include the epic poem "The Deserted Village" (now you know where the label gets its name from), and the play "She Stoops to Conquer". In Goldsmith Country, presumably Dave's tribute to his childhood and roots, was originally released on the Deadslackstring label in 1999 and is theoretically out-of-print, but one turned up nonetheless, so it looks like Dave is home-brewing copies in some capacity. This mostly instrumental album works with evocation of place in the same way that Roy Montgomery's Scenes from the South Island CD does. Recorded simply but well; rich guitar timbres, keyboard figures and drones, found sounds and noise deftly come together to form a soundtrack to landscapes both interior and exterior. When vocals are present, as on "Early Morning Fog on the River", you can hear the influence of Richard Youngs above all. To obtain a copy I suggest contacting Dave via the ARP Myspace page. Leaving Goldsmith Country we skip a few releases and end up with Dave's impressions of backpacking around Australia, recorded for posterity as the 2000-2002 recordings A Drifting Population, initially released on Deserted Village, and now available in a numbered second edition of 30 from the same source. As an attempt to capture the fleeting memories of travel, it's pretty successful - you really feel both the freedom and aloneness of the experience in this series of melancholy solo-guitar instrumentals. It can be placed on a continuum with In Goldsmith Country, though the pieces are more fragmentary and impressionistic: blue haze over the Great Dividing Range, heat haze over country roads while you exist in suspended animation waiting to hitch a ride, night insects and a sky full of more stars than you've ever seen before. Tape hiss is a player in this landscape as well, a running stream through the recordings. The four-part suite "The Ebb and Flow of Distant Moonlit Grass" is central to proceedings, moving from the isolationism of quietly bowed drones to a dying campfire of night watch improvisations to morning rise through dense ground fog over silent fields. Fittingly, the final track was recorded direct to Dictaphone during Dave's Australian travels (the rest being recorded on return to Ireland).
Fast forward to 2006 and ARP's busiest year to date. Your Turn to Go It Alone, is a double 3" CD-R set on the Rusted Rail imprint housed in a really striking mini-gatefold sleeve, marking the beginning of a new phase in ARP recordings. Mostly deeply personal meditations on relationships gone wrong, and very well recorded, it nonetheless connects to the mordant atmospheres of earlier releases, building them into downbeat singer-songwriter statements that run the gamut from Jandek to Townes Van Zandt. "Emmet St. 1" functions as an intro to disc one, Colohan's bleak piano offset against Sean Og's thoughtful clarinet. One of Colohan's finest vocal performances amps up the heartbreak on "Hold Back the Sea", the refined agony of a recently fractured relationship laid bare. Townes Van Zandt haunts the striking "Get Well Soon", and there is something deeply iconic about line like: "And I don't blame you for giving up on me/One too many times I missed the loneliness in your kiss and the distance in your smile" and "There will come a time when I hope that you'll regret/Never telling me to get well soon/you know I would have tried". Elsewhere, "Last Ride" is splendid slice of psych-folk, culled from a dream of animated garden gnomes, talking cats and asylum inmates, and the title track is extraordinary in its evocation of a guy drinking away another broken relationship without having really learnt anything from it thus pre-destined to make the same mistakes again. Disc two contains two extraordinary pieces. "We Can't Last" takes the themes of disc one and wraps them in an epic almost progressive rock structure, with UBS member Colin Hoye contributing gut-wrenching trumpet and Pumice member Stephan Neville weighing in with distressed percussion. Dave's rich vocals come from inside a relationship this time, but with a level of pessimism that seems like a rehearsal of its ultimate failure. "The Barren Ground Assembly" finds Dave and his collaborators traveling through an improvised space recalling the live United Bible Studies release Airs of Sun and Stone, though lit by the moon rather than the morning sun. The title refers to a name given to herds of Caribou. In all, Your Turn to Go It Alone is an unexpected masterpiece.
ARP returns to the Deserted Village for The Days and Hills Grown Old CD-R, and reconnects with landscape and mist for a haunted outing somewhere between early solo guitar improvisations and the soul-searching of Your Turn to Go It Alone. "Saints Island" opens with deep earth humming and spare but emotive guitar plucking reminiscent of Mazzacane Connors and also not too far removed from the minimalist blues pickings of Tetuzi Akiyama's fine Pre-Existence CD. Much is carried by the silence between the notes. The spare lightly jazz-inflected "How You'll Fall" sounds spiritually exhausted in a chillingly effective way. Not easy listening, it forces the listener to get inside the heads of the male and female protagonists to try and connect with it - no easy task. The unaccompanied "Floodplains" and canonical "The Liminal Hills" are easier to plug in to; the former's ghostly tradition segueing into the latter's avant-folk. Taking up more than half the CD, the transcendent "And if I Remained in the Outermost Sea" is a 20 minute live improvisation based around the work of the same name by W. G. Sebald. Like "The Barren Ground Assembly", it blurs the boundaries between what one expects of an ARP release and what one expects of a United Bible Studies release. Inspired by the presence of Matthew Bower and Michael Flower on the same bill it builds from ambient drone to collective freakitude, fueled by zoned percussion and contemplative flute passages. The Days... suffered some hefty disrespect on release for not consolidating on the melodic song-craft of Your Turn... and it is definitely more detached than its predecessor, but nonetheless contains fine and lasting moments that sit well within the ARP/UBS construct as a whole. The recently released five track EP A Premonition (a free download from Rusted Rail) changes tack again, being an attempt to "channel something more joyful and ecstatic than the Pilot is used to" according to Dave. The tracks are largely improvised, with voice used as an instrument as well as to convey lyrics. From the opening title track, the listener is taken on a higher-key cosmic ride. This lightness of being of these tracks is new for ARP, with instrumentation like prepared piano, melodica, autoharp and lap steel leaving vapor trails in the mind. A fine collaborative release, the input of Sean Og, Aaron Hurley and Shane Cullinane seems to be given equal weight to Dave's. You'll definitely be reminded of Keith Wood's Hush Arbors. Beautiful...and free.
Also recent are two extremely limited CD-Rs on Deserted Village: Last Orders at the One Tree Hotel and The Light Is Coming From You. Both of these are purportedly editions of 20, though the fact that they are still listed for sale on the DV site suggests that the number might be somewhat mutable. The recordings on the Last Orders at the One Tree Hotel EP date from 2001, and it is a companion piece to the A Drifting Population CD. "A Thousand Years on the One Tree Plain (Parts I-V)" is a meditation on landscape and eternity; guitar, vocal and echoplex effects wielded with focus and purpose. For anyone who has driven from Adelaide to Sydney across the great nothingness of the Australian interior, Colohan's sonic mapping of the desolate Hay Plain in this work will resonate deeply. An odd omission from A Drifting Population, "A Thousand Years..." is arguably the strongest work to come out of those recordings. The title track evokes the abandoned hotel in question and its setting of red dirt and spinifex perfectly. Finishing off the EP, "Saw You There in Land and Weather" again brings Roy Montgomery to mind. The Light Is Coming From You documents the live Agitated Radio Pilot experience, with recordings culled from recordings made during a tour of Ireland supporting Charalambides in July 2006. Four tracks were recorded at the Bog Lane Theatre in Ballymahon and three tracks at the Boom Boom Room in Dublin. Concentrating on songs culled from Your Turn to Go It Alone and the forthcoming World Winding Down it finds ARP in mystical chamber-folk mode, though with occasional acid guitar explosions to spice things up, as on the opening track, an atmospheric version of "Hold Back the Sea". The four songs presumably from World Winding Down bode extremely well for that release, particularly the spine-tingling "Caroline Sings" and epic title track.
Significant releases missing from this round up are the very first ARP release A Lonely Trajectory, originally a 1996 double cassette, the 2004 EP Imaginary East of Longford CDR EP on Slow Loris, and Like Flightless Birds on Foxglove from around the same time. But with a relatively decent swag of the ARP back-catalog available at the moment (though who knows how long that will last) now is a good time to catch up with a fine body of work that has accreted virtually unnoticed over the past decade.