Available on: Dramatic Records LP
From Wikipedia: “Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges (22 October 1882 – June 1959) was an English adventurer, traveller, and writer. His name was almost always seen in print as F. A. Mitchell-Hedges; he sometimes went by the name “Mike Hedges”. Mitchell-Hedges had a talent for telling colourful stories. The veracity of much of his autobiographical writings is in question.”
F. A. Mitchell-Hedges also stands as one of the roll-call of nine Explorers paid tribute to in the fourth release from the playful provocateurs at Dramatic Records. Dramatic is a UK based label that operates under the banner of “Music with stories to tell”, and who are most famous for the superb Endless House album (and subsequent EP) from last year, a compilation of fantastical artists who all contributed to an ill-fated grandiose modernist discotheque folly in communist Czechoslovakia in the early 70’s. Exquisitely packaged in a CD pouch with an assortment of postcards, this was followed by Tanza Consulting’s equally brilliant An Audience with Hans Tanza Gabo, which took a surreal electronic scalpel to contemporary office technology, and came packaged in a metal tin on a USB stick complete with PowerPoint presentation!
And so we arrive at instalment number 4 in the Dramatic Records story and an introduction to a new character: anthropologist and ‘no-time’ musician Gabo Gulbenkian. Gulbenkian is by far the vaguest of Dramatic’s protagonists to date, acting more as a cipher / curator / composer than as an actual narrative element around which a tale is spun. So Explorers rests in a glossy digipack wrapped in the haziest of highly treated landscapes, with acid-like circles peppering the design. Inside there are nine names followed by brief but richly poetic statements impressionistically summoning the explorers in question, who are – or at least were – for once definitely “real”. They’re explorers of the traveling variety, but tellingly – and appropriately - at least two of those (Baron Munchausen and the aforementioned F.A. Mitchell Hedges) are also very much from the world of the unreliable narrator. These protagonists run a gauntlet of oceanographer engineers (‘Jacques Piccard’) through decadent poet gun-runners (‘Arthur Rimbaud’, of course) to pilot pioneers (‘Amelia Earhart’) and explorer photographers (‘Wilfred Thessiger’).
Musically, this is Dramatic’s most sumptuous release to date. The “mangled analog dreams of Tangerine Dream and Harald Grosskopf” are name checked but also prominent is Ryuichi Sakamoto at his most synthetically exotic. These are luxurious and exotic mystical pathways, sprouting from multi-layered synths and heavily sequenced cushions of softly-textured, mostly electronic pop soundscapes. Gulbenkian utilises highly evocative tones to achieve states of travel – landscapes, undiscovered cultures and onward motion are almost exclusively alluded to melodically rather than through field recordings or samples. So ‘Jacques Piccard’ is sketched through sequenced arpeggios and unresolved melodies, whale-like swoops and calls bringing his oceanographic environment to life. ‘Arthur Rimbaud’ constructs a surreal world pitching gamelan chimes and monastic vocals with a rapid see-saw synth that suddenly breaks into a discordant pophausen collage, and culminates in a bizarre atmosphere of speedy meditation. ‘Raphael Hythloday’, a traveller known only through the first book of Thomas More’s Utopia, moves briskly with soft rhythms, housey piano, a locked bass guitar-like loop and a kind of faux-tribal, almost Casio-like drum machine with the vaguest trace of flute. When “natural” sounds do appear, like the lapping waves and seagulls of ‘Ferdinand Magellan’, they act merely to add to the dominant Vangelis-like synth paintings.
But as Huysmans’s legendary anti-hero des Esseintes (surely a worthy addition to the Explorers canon) would testify, nothing replicates (or betters) reality more than artifice, and Explorers taps into the dangerously paradoxical and muddy pleasures of exotica – the romantic lure of far-off lands and untainted wildernesses and societies that can only exist within an imperialist fantasy. And Dramatic, as you may have gathered, are masters of fantasy.
Gabo Gulbenkian represents another exquisite step in Dramatic’s enlivening and surprisingly touching attempt to drag Hauntology into pan European waters via a New Gold Dream. Charming, playful, knowing and yet strangely naïve these injections of impressionistic colour are desperately needed in these horrible, hard times.