Review: Atom Eye – The Otolith Sessions

Accompanying The Otolith Sessions is a gorgeous colour booklet, gathering a year of compulsive audio experiments into a series of photographs and written instructions: close-up shots of wires intertwining and arcing, chaotic spills of tape regurgitated into a tangle, dials and buttons beckoning creative decision. The booklet is a scrapbook of sorts; a tribute to the very physical and textural nature of tape manipulation, presenting sound as a very careful, deliberate culmination of muscle, machinery and miraculous moments of chance.

Elsie Martins’ enthusiasm for her medium is addictive. Numerous artists have exhibited a fascination with magnetic tape, and it lends itself particularly well to those pursuing ideas of death and nostalgia – warped, crumbling relics of memory can manifest as clumps of melody cloaked in warmth and quivering under the decay of age, with the mere act of living and resounding only tugging the music closer toward the twilight of analogue silence. The Otolith Sessions is a much more playful utilisation of tape, and while her chosen collaborators (Pete Lockett, Simon Fisher-Turner, Oliver Barton) are all adept painters of atmosphere and unusual sonic spaces, Martins’ array of second-hand recorders and tape machines act as possibility multipliers – tools for her inexorable venture down the tunnel of “what if”, tapping in to new dimensions and characters within the sound that would otherwise remain inaudible and unobtainable.

One of the major surprises with The Otolith Sessions is that it’s an incredibly musical work. Composition hasn’t been neglected in amongst Martins’ passion for process, and the pieces here are comprised of huge, densely orchestrated narratives: teeming starlight soaring over fierce tribal percussion, hazy blankets of voice and saxophone tilting through a tidal throb and sway, heartbeat techno forcing choir noise upward in billowing clouds. The translucent hand of tape processing winds itself deftly in between each instrument, and rather than choking out her collaborators through brash applications of tape FX or sudden varispeed plummets, her treatment runs in parallel, tugging overtone into gentle full blossom or smothering particular frequencies in soft, analogue moss. There’s something phantom-like about her music – a sense of suspension and unresolve that embodies the temporal nature of tape; a constant oceanic flux of nanosecond detail culminating in the totality of a central obsession, like the chaos of quantum behaviour that lies deep within all inevitable process.