Unwar – Activate Mantis Division Now! (CD-R)

unwar mantis thumbWherein Michael Donnelly proves that modern analogue synth improvisation needn’t have a Futurist or retro-Futurist agenda reflexively pinned to it. Donnelly’s work with 6majik9 and Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood has commonly evoked cragged and ruined rural landscapes, usually at night, and usually via the use of rock ensemble staples and other more folksy addendum. With Unwar, it’s just Donnelly and his synths, yet the result is eerily similar.

Unwar sounds like moments in-between, seized upon and studied closely. Tracks like ‘Spectral Paradox’ conjure images of the brief moments between a rural dusk and its total black night, when the sharper edges are shorn off the world and the absence of harsh light lends clarity. The synthetic colours throughout Activate Mantis Division Now! are rich and pleasing compared to their more organic counterparts in Donnelly’s catalogue, mostly because they lack the prickly percussive elements that lent a creeping quality to those old Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood moments. If those were a bleary-eyed trek through malignant shrubland, then Unwar sounds laid flat and staring at the stars. The foreign terror surrounds, but there’s a greater, more inscrutable terror above that’s far more engaging. And if you stare for long enough, you’ll probably see it.

To be honest, Donnelly’s more meditative synth excursions here easily surpass similarly inclined tracks from earlier records, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is his true calling: sensorily disorienting, THC laced synth improv. Track titles like ‘Cyborg Disease’ and ‘Carbon Memories’ aren’t speculative sci-fi so much as blazed nightmares borne of studying the darkness for too long. Meanwhile, moments like ‘Earth Life Assessment’, with its thick blizzard of swooping neon synth notes, reveal a daunting and moonlit birds-eye view of a world alive with invisible energies.

For an artist that has an apparent ambivalence to stately and measured capital C composition, these excursions sound purposeful and self-contained. And for someone who has usually kept quiet about the hows and whys of what he does, I’ll go out on a limb and say Donnelly’s work often translates as a challenge to the established notions of the Australian wilderness, because it manages to capture its mood without resorting to the usual earthy and sentimental sonics. Unwar sounds like the soil, the hallucinatory emptinesses, the eroded paddocks, the dust, brown trees and dams, all revealing an otherwise hidden sentience. Donnelly’s music often sounds like hundreds of tiny hidden species all singing their song at once, so why not lay spreadwing among them and hope they don’t bite? Where Donnelly roams, he probably has no choice.

Label: Hashram Audio Concern
Release date: February 2013


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