Ashtray Navigations – A Shimmering Replica (vhf 2015) with a discussion on prolificness
There’s a part of me that might want Melanie O’Dubshlaine and Phil Todd to go crappy. Maybe I have a nihilistic current that runs through me which assumes that everything I’ve held close to me as truthful and sublime will one day be revealed as hollow or (maybe worse?-) be bastardized down to something cheap, vacuous and vain. For some reason I found myself listening to this album and waiting for it to become crappy. Ashtray Navigations occur frequently; at least 6 full albums have been released since 2013. There have been a good amount of e.p.s, singles and other appearances, too. With such a consistent flow of material, the cynical part of me assumes that at some point the quality will give way to something I will not like nearly as much. That’s the way a lot of artists’ work may go when they unwittingly fall into the trap of overly-frequent releasing; their quality filter might break down and they might start releasing material that whiffs of stale fast food breakfast sandwiches. To such ill-inspired over-releasers one might say, “Just because you pooped it does not mean it’s golden.”
It’s not often that I myself feel inspired to say or think such things, though. I don’t think that being prolific inevitably signifies anything in particular, but as implied I have in the past felt like certain more prolific artists’ overall message might have been more potent if the massive quantity of material was not working to dilute the intensity. My thoughts have been modified in recent years. I’ve come to respect, understand and even enjoy the concept of frequently releasing material. I certainly don’t hold it as a preference, but certain artists’ message and sensibility is inextricable from their habit of releasing material incessantly all across the globe. Frequent proliferators derive a special kind of satisfaction from constant creative activity. This satisfaction is then compounded by the artist’s subsequent physical and/or electronic precipitation of the creative work outward into the web of minds on Earth, and also into the other various spaces and dimensions in and around that web. This process is a transmutation of specific types of energy through very specific psychic and dimensional paths and filters. I would call this a process of digestive breakdown. It happens with any creative act, but with frequent proliferators the mindset is more focused on the experience. The artist relishes the experience of the creative act & process more than any notions of consistency, logic, restraint, etc. The point becomes much more about uninhibited transmission & psycho-sensory enthrallments of energy, and a lot less about hitting meticulously sculpted and weighty conceptual bulls-eyes. I’m sure there are other ways that frequent proliferators think about their activities. “Just for the heck of it” or “why not?” are also fine enough reasons to create and proliferate on a constant basis. Most any act of creativity and the subsequent dissemination of its resulting energies I would think of as a net gain for the universe, myself included, -as long as it comes from a genuine place within the creator. Each creative act has its own trajectory through the world once the creator sets it loose, and the more creations an artist instigates she/he becomes more likely to transmit intended energies and/or cause reactions. Do I have to subject myself to every creation by Dr. Noisemaster Guy and every one of Dr. Noisemaster Guy’s preposterously numerous bastard projects, sometimes several of them being born on the same day? No I do not, and neither does anybody else. Do I have enough cash flow to be able to keep up with such artists’ output? No sir or ma’am. Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t. That’s just me, though.
Returning back to my lurking cynical thoughts, that part of me expecting a decline in prolific ol’ Ashtray Navigations’ quality was wrong in this case. They can do no wrong, yet. This collection of 10 tracks proceeds logically from more recent Ashtray Navigations recordings with its usage of sparse electronic rhythms and continuation of their special flavors of psych improvisation. Many of the weird -almost campy at times- rhythm loops and percussive sounds are mixed in at strange levels which subvert expectations of foreground and background. The mix is often somehow creatively off-balanced, perhaps by something as haphazard as mic placement. This characteristic, and the various distinctive choices / limitations of effects, filters, and electronic sound sources make up the present-tense archetypal Ashtray Navigations bouillon. With this basic formula, they travel into different dreamy territories alight with frenetic, painterly guitar shadow-play. Phil Todd’s guitar is usually there amidst the various clouds of texture, unassumingly cavorting with uninhibited gestures. The voice of his guitar, when present, is always clear and confident but never approaches self-importance.
To mention and highlight a few specific pieces:
“Quite Village” has a playful bossa-nova plus Can plus Faust plus Ralf-and-Florian Kraftwerk sense about it, which is of course slathered in AN’s skittering guitar noise-melody and textures. This piece is a folk-stomping psychedelic campfire zone-out based on Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village”. Fun and energetic. There are some textural pieces here on this album that do not have such apparent guitar presence. One such piece, “A Dustprint”, is focused on synthesizer textures. There is some fantastic deep feeling exploration within Tangerine Dream or Vangelis-like territory, but with a distinctive subconscious-mind-movement grit and abandon. The warm tones of the synths echo out into a delayed-out space amidst fizzing and rumbling textures. An arpeggio comes in near the end, tying the piece up sweetly with a solid dose of rhythm and suggested melody. “Crawiling to Zero” is a dark synth drone piece which achieves different but similar goals. Another of the sort of touch I enjoy so much about Ashtray Navigations’ work is the inclusion of misc. field recordings and/or found sounds (See the beginning of the release, Tristes Tropiques). At the beginning of “Seventies Concorde Proboscis” we find what sounds like some seagulls recorded from a boat dock, which then cross fades into some intimate video arcade ambience. This is an enjoyable left turn, which provides variety, some extra perspective and headspace for the album. Aspects of some sampled rhythms and sounds on “The Banian Tree” remind me of some very early recordings by SPK, Cabaret Voltaire or Zoviet France. This track evolves to bring out some heavier synthesizer action with unapologetic arpeggiation which is paired gracefully with idiosyncratic lo-fi drones, textures and freeform guitar. The album overall has a lot of creative mixing going on as well; heavy use of panning occurs on many tracks, along with much filtering and effecting of performed sounds. The words on vhf’s web page for the album sum it up nicely, “Phil Todd and Melanie O’Dubshlaine essay a kind of guitar-and-electronics exotica with burbling rhythms, Heldon-like laser guitar leads, field recordings, synth racket, etc.”
From the perspective an admitted fan and follower, this is a thoroughly enjoyable further deposit of Ashtray Navigations’ creative research. It also would make a good introduction point to A.N. for any uninitiated and curious enjoyer of experimental psychedelic music. When these Ashtray Navigations people finally screw up maybe I’ll notice, and maybe I’ll deliberately forget about it.
Listen below and/or BUY HERE.