Album Reviews - The Thin Air

Mats Gustafsson – Piano Mating


Mats Gustafsson is a sax player who has been recording since the 1980s, but for this strange release on Blue Tapes and X-Ray Records, he’s travelling a different path. Tasked by the label’s head with making music using an instrument he’d never recorded with before, he opted for the the Dubreq Pianomate. This is an obscure machine that acts as a kind of keyboard-less synth, generally used with a piano. In Gustafsson’s case, however, he turned the machine on itself, creating sounds that are shrill, calming, enraging, all dragged out in two lengthy sides of grinding drone. Gustafsson is known for his “tonal beligerence”, and this is evident on Piano Mating.

A lonely note starts the opening side, its tone wavering slightly before being joined by others, casually, irreverently, joining the party in no particular order. Each fresh note lends wild mania: there are no chords here, just layered sounds that build a thrilling wall of noise, drifting and edging towards anarchy. Some nine minutes in, things seem to have reached a settled continuum, a balance of sounds achieved, leaning slightly at times but on the whole complete. This does not last, as still further shrieking layers join in to test one’s endurance. As the 18-minute side comes to a close, notes fall away, cast aside, lost, forgotten. A single drone remains, a pair of notes battling on, hoping for an empty triumph, lost, alone. Divergent strands drift each way, until both are dead.

The B-side is calmer, lacking a certain intensity though this is a welcome relief. Its soothing drone makes no shrill cries, instead providing a soft bed on which to languish after the raucous screech. Instead of an additive approach, Gustafsson opts for a long-form drift here, allowing an aimless shift carry the side onwards. Hints of higher notes creep in as the tone modulates upward and downward, as tension seems to grow from the lack of static motion. The sounds become dense, uncertain, a confluence of feeling, while notes and ideas seem to creep forth just as a last gasp, an aged machine attempting to communicate in an unfamiliar world.

While the early releases on Blue Tapes came on, well, blue tapes, last year the label expanded its remit. Reminiscent of Russian bootleg records made out of actual x-ray film as a method of bypassing strict state restrictions, the label has released several 12″s on clear heavyweight vinyl accompanied by screen-printed artwork that resembles a photographic negative. This record appears to show an aged, bearded man, his face torn out, forgotten by history. Can parallels be drawn with the strange instrument at play? Largely forgotten, except by those who know, or care to investigate such curios? This single record is unlikely to lead to a host of tributes, though it encourages its own joys and anguish nonetheless. A bizarre beauty, Piano Mating holds secret wealth for those who choose to enter its unsettling realm. Aidan Hanratty