Album Reviews

Alistair Fraser, Steve Burridge & Neil Johnstone - Shearwater Drift (Rattle)

Tim Gruar

This music seeks to explore real, and imagined, landscapes constructed from a unique sonic architecture that mixes elements from our own human-built environments with the wonders of the natural world.  It’s a quiet contemplative listen.

Throughout this album there is a cyclical aspect, with continuous beginnings and endings, always with birdsong (some from here, some from the northern hemisphere). This, claims the group, is intended to create a slowly evolving, ethereal world, with pieces that express, reflect, and explore non-linear time and memory as sound.

Although it took a few listens to really get into this I really enjoyed this mix of ancient and modern, especially Al Fraser’s ngā taonga pūoro playing. Like the much revered Richard Nunns, Fraser’s a leading practitioner in traditional instruments, having played in STROMA, the New Zealand String Quartet and the Waiata Māori Music Award nominated ensemble, 'Auaha'. The ornate and sometimes fragile soundscapes are courtesy of Scotsman Neil Johnstone (guitar mandolin, metallic percussion). The whole thing is crafted by sound design specialist Steve Burridge (recordings, synthesisers, sampling, percussion). 

 The audio samples have come from recordings made both here in Aotearoa and in Scotland, and you can hear this in tracks like Tsitern with its haunting accordion drones (thanks to Ross Harris) and a faint hint of bagpipes. There’s a subtle nod to the early whalers and settlers that may have settled her once. That's in contrast to other pieces like Mirror of Light which begins with a slow dry drone pierced by the shrillness of a nose flute. It’s not difficult to realise that this is a description of the sun rising over a pool of water as the day breaks and birds are waking. The rise and fall of the day is heralded by different birds and offsetting aural landscapes.

Deep into the set you get short interludes like Piwakwaka Flametip, a bright punch of digital noise that mimics the bird’s distorted cry. I wonder if this was once created by a clay flute, an instrument once made to mimic the bird’s call for hunting purposes.

You can definitely hear the ‘whooping’ of a Purerehua (a Maori Musical Wind Instrument ) on For Phyllis as its whirled on a string to make the sounds of flapping wings. In the is piece it's performed alongside a backdrop of city traffic, giving the impression of a bird flying between the skyscrapers.

In a more natural setting is the fantail (Piwakwaka) that reappears on the irreverent Irukandji. The short piece also features an intricately layered but subtle backdrop from a digital waterfall that makes you feel like an extra from an Asimov film. The theme continues on in the following track Cherry Blossom Pool, which has more of that hum of the sunrise and sunset.

From a musical perspective, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Those familiar with Rattle Records' back catalogue know that owner Steve Garden enjoys releasing music that doesn’t fit into the traditional markets of jazz, pop, classical, hip hop or blues. This is one of those collections that could only be described as ‘ambient’, and that’s a pretty loose term at the best of times. But it is a journey for those who choose a different path, perhaps one that quieter and more intellectual. This is definitely a headphone album. One to meditate or contemplate with. This is music for taking time out of the craziness of the modern world. 

Tim Gruar

Written By: Tim Gruar