This year at South by SouthWest, we wandered into a show by High Places. It was completely accidental -- we had some time to kill before seeing The English Beat, and Tracers wanted to see Death Sentence: Panda, mostly for the name. The venue was running behind schedule, and instead of the panda-band, we saw this strange duet: a guy with a table of gear that chugged out clattering beats in bizarre patterns while he fiddled with percussion and did some synthesizer work, and a girl who sang lightly in a lilting, almost chanting, fashion.
It was utterly fascinating. I left impressed, and did some research on the act upon my return home. The guy is Robert Barber and the girl is Mary Pearson and they have released a few things that are now out of print, but there were promises of a record later in the year.
And so i waited. And, as is often the place, waiting becomes anticipation, which becomes dread that what you are waiting for cannot possibly be as good as you hope it will be. Or that the band cannot capture that magic seen, accidentally, on stage that one time. Too many bands have disappointed me in this kind of situation.
And so it came to pass that the High Places self-titled debut record was released on Thrill Jockey and is easily available, even in Atlanta. I picked a copy up, not knowing exactly what to expect, but there, on record, is that bizarre magical sound i remembered from that night in Austin. This record sounds exactly like i thought it would. Like i hoped it would.
The voice is the key. Ms Pearson sort of half-speaks her words in a lilting voice, as if she is reading poetry. It is almost like chanting, like that ritual music I was forced to endure as a child in the Catholic Church. Pearsonís voice is slightly high-pitched, but not too much so, and it is generally pleasant. When she actually sings, it is as quiet as her speaking voice, as if she is not quite confident of her singing yet. This gives the music an honest innocence that is, well, charming. Consider Visionís the FirstÖ, which is pretty much a reggae tune filtered through the High Places sound, where she is chanting her words in time to that loping beat, but then swells up to full singing on the chorus. Singing does not cause her to increase the volume, which it usually does with most singers. Interesting.
Consider that this voice is combined with Mr. Barber's unique electronics. Really -- i cannot think of anyone else who does what he is doing. Sounds clatter and chug and move at wholly odd paces. This isn't IDM -- i think that this would confuse even Autechre themselves. It is not rave music -- you can't really dance to it. Well, you can, but not in any sort of rave fashion. To dance to this you need to dance with your whole body around a fire somewhere, not in some sweaty club surrounded by people on Ecstasy. And this certainly isn't ambient music -- there is too much rhythm and nothing of the "background mellowness" that typifies ambient music.
It is something else then. Something different. Perhaps something new?
When i saw them at SxSW, i thought that this music was tribal. As in, this is what primitive indie rockers listened to after killing Mammoths for food. The beats and rhythms touch some deep-seated ancestral memory -- they are not over intellectualized, they are primal and honest. Listening to this record makes me think that even more. So this music is not new as such, it is old. Ancient. It is rooted in the early memories of humanity, in cave paintings and hunting mammothsÖ High Places have used cutting edge technology to tap into something primal.
So, combine honest primitive rhythms and noises with an innocent yet sweet female voice, and you have something really engaging. There isnít anything out there that sounds like High Places, and it is rare to find something that is so fresh and at the same time so fun. A lot of really forward-thinking music is stuff that i would not play for most of my friends, but i honestly think that everyone should hear this High Places record. I am not sure that a wide range of people will enjoy it, but i suspect that it might have broad potential appeal.
It's a short album too. There are ten tracks here at a total of about half an hour long. Some of the songs are really short, while only a few reach the three-and-a-half to four minute "norm" for pop tunes. Still there is a lot going on. Let me discuss my favorites. The songs are short, so i will try to take less time to describe them than it will take to listen to them!
Namer is my clear favorite. It starts with Pearson talking over clattering noise and ďjungle insectĒ sounds. Then a funky keyboard riff echoes in, and Person starts singing, about the act of taxonomy. A strange subject matter, but this song features some of Barberís best work, with sounds wandering by in the fog of echo, as Pearson chants in time to the rhythms. This tune clocks in at four minutes, making it the longest on the album. It shows that High Places can work with the longer format, and that their ideas still work when allowed time to grow. I hope that this is an indication of future, longer tunes.
Another classic tune is From Stardust to Sentience, the song that comes closest to pure ambient music. The percussion noises seem subdued, and there is a general floating quality to the synthesizers and Pearsonís voice. Very lovely.
Gold Coin starts with Pearson reciting some Kahlil Gibran poetry, before the song goes all crazy and she chants wordlessly over a chugging beat. This is the closest they get to dance music, and also the loudest her voice seems to get.
But there really arenít any snoozers here. There is a lot going on in each tune, and High Places manage to hold my attention. Overall, i am very impressed. High Places are doing something really special and unique, and, well, i have high hopes for them. I wonder where they will take us on their musical journeys? The start of this journey has intrigued me to no end.
Now letís go kill a mammoth and play Gold Coin at high volume while we dance around its smoldering corpse!