What if someone said to you, “listening to this album is like watching clouds.” You’d figure that they were bored, or high, right? Still, that’s a fair approximation of what Alexander Berne’srecent all-instrumental, double-cd magnum opus, Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes, evokes – and it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s like flying at low altitude at very low speed on an overcast day as dusk approaches. Shifting banks of sound come at you slowly, in waves: low drones, white noise, washes with endlessly changing, minute shifts in timbre or pitch, and tantalizing snatches of melody. It would be overly reductionistic to say that it’s a struggle between rhythm and stillness, between change and stasis, but that’s a big part of it. More apparent is the tug-of-war between balmy contentment and unease – and guess which one wins most of the time! Rock fans will call this ambient music; a musicologist would probably call it horizontal music; you could also file it under indie classical or avant-garde and nobody would complain. But more than anything else, this is an album of nocturnes.
Berne plays all the instruments: his background is jazz sax improvisation, and he has pyrotechnic chops, although the result is just the opposite here. Although the sounds are heavily processed via a pitch pedal and what seems to be an endless series of loops, many of the instruments are clearly recognizable: sax, piano, various percussion instruments (most of them on the low, boomy end of the register). Sometimes Berne is a one-man wind ensemble, occasionally reaching for regal, epic heights. Other times it’s impossible to figure out what the instrumentation is: organ? Ebow guitar? Bagpipes? A string section? A lonesome train whistle? Fluttering, bubbling, rippling, echoing or sirening, texture after texture enters the mix and then fades out or simply disappears. Occasionally, there are glacial conversational exchanges between them, or an unexpected, dramatic percussion cadenza (among them a wry Also Sprach Zarathustra quote that opens the second disc). Unexpectedly upbeat flashes of melody, including a tensely meandering handful of piano passages appear and then fade away into the nebulous, opaque backdrop. The most cohesive moments here are a couple of trip-hop interludes that, when you upload the album, work best at the end: by themselves, they’re not bad, but as they’re sequenced on the album, the segues they create are on the jarring side. But maybe that’s intentional. While each cd is divided up into discrete parts, it’s best enjoyed taken as a whole.
Those who require a catchy melody and a snappy beat will probably find this interminable (although there’s actually more melody here than you usually find in, say, Brian Eno). But at high volume, it’s absolutely intoxicating; at low volume, it’s a great album to send you off to dreamland on a whispery, surreal note. It came out on Innova last fall. That it’s taken this long to figure out what it’s about, between now and when it first came over the transom here, testifies to its hypnotic, mysterious power.