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Album review :: Andrew Pekler - Sounds From Phantom Islands

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Oscar Allan explores one of our favourite albums of 2019. Dive in!

Sometimes I suspect that Andrew Pekler doesn’t really like the world we live in. It’s not that his music aches with a deep sense of loneliness or sadness. Quite the opposite in fact; from his early-noughties dabblings in jazzy-IDM through to his recent experiments in abstract ambience, his oeuvre has been characterised by an intimate and swooning warmth, rich with fleeting, lilting whispers that tantalise the eardrums and widen the eyes. 

No. The reason why I think Pekler may be yearning for a new place to call home lies more in the fact that his gaze seems to be drifting further and further toward an alternate, chimeric version of earth. His 2016 album, Tristes Tropiques, was a beguiling and blurry study of a fantasised sonic ecosystem in which faunal rustlings and chirrups mingled with electro-acoustic, concrète reverberations. The world it depicted was rose-tinted and redolent, yet distinctly alien; an enchanting fairytale land woven with reminisces and reimaginings.

For his new release he’s taken a slightly more academic, cartological approach, choosing to explore the mystical subject of ‘phantom islands’: specks of land that are reported by boozy sailors or vainglorious navigators, named, and then spuriously published on maps - often remaining there for centuries - despite having never actually existed. Sounds From Phantom Islands is (no prizes for guessing) Pekler’s envisaging of the soundscapes one might experience on a P&O package holiday cruise among these apocryphal atolls.

The seed of the project is an interactive online map Pekler created which plots phantom islands on a global atlas. It then allows you to visit each one and hear “recordings” taken from its shores (it even has an actual cruise mode.) This LP expands and threads together those aural fragments, fleshing them out to their full, synapse-spinning glory and shaping them into a weightless investigation of the liminal zone between terrestrial fact and fiction.

For the most part, the isles we glide amidst are tranquil idylls inhabited by gently nattering critters and flocks of soft ambient tones. “Hy Brasil” blends jungle hubbub with modular murmurs until a few angelic chords puncture the canopy’s gloom to illuminate a nesting family of lesser spotted Hassell macaques - aw. Aaaaand if you look to your right you’ll spy the similarly harmonious “Sunshower at Sandy Island,” its hallucinatory field recordings and languid, questioning, call-and-response refrain bringing to mind a good-natured debate at the Roberto Musci School of Auditory Philosophy. 

Alas, the laws of equilibrium dictate that for every Bali there must be a Barry; for every Cayman Island laden with bikini-clad beauties, a fetid, nuke-battered shard of Bikini Atoll. Thus Pekler’s world is not one of total beatific sanctuary. An uneasy darkness seems to fall as you approach “Saxenburgh / Pepys / Aurora.” The chorus of birds and insects turns crepuscular, ominous and hostile; previously soothing polyrhythms become uncertain and stumbling. Then there’s the visceral squelchings of “Los Jardines,” along with the haunting chimes and oddly uncomfortable scraping sounds on “Taprobana.” That’s not to say that any of this is unpleasant to listen to. Even at their most disquieting, the track’s here are mesmerisingly, seductively transportive. (Maybe this is the kind of voyeuristic pleasure that people get from those ‘Holidays From Hell’ TV shows.)

For any (much) older readers, all this talk of distant shores and tropical tones may bring to mind one, potentially shudder-inducing word: Exotica. The 50s and 60s were awash with records by the likes of Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman, whose work took musical motifs from the Pacific and Carribean Islands, the Far East, Africa, Latin America - anywhere with a post-war sense of intrigue and otherness - and nestled them into a cushioned, easy listening-inflected package, infinitely more palatable to the Western middle-class than any raw transmissions from the far-off, ‘savage’ lands that Exotica purported to pay homage to.

With the benefit of half a century’s worth of hindsight and globalisation though, this ersatz, racially-tinged endeavour can be seen in a different light. It doesn’t matter that Exotica’s fantasy land of permanent poolside tipsiness, psychedelic slide guitar and cocktail-swilling sleaze never actually existed. In fact it’s arguably the genre’s most vital and alluring trait, the folkloric mist that gives it it’s unique, truly otherworldly charm. It’s also the aspect with the most profound relevance to Sounds From Phantom Islands.

The album takes the Exotica concept to its headiest extreme. The pretense of pseudo-ethnographic legitimacy is gone but the glorious feeling of wandering - bemused and blissful - through strangely familiar climes is as strong as ever. It’s magic realism made audible; Gabriel García Márquez on field recording duties while Rushdie riffs on a Buchla. Revel in it.

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