Review: Mendel Kaelen – The Tragedy That Drowned Itself (2012)


artist: Mendel Kaelen
release: The Tragedy That Drowned Itself
format: CD
year of release: 2012
label: Sineszi
duration: 70:16

detailed info: discogs.com

Given an indian harmonium to make an album with, I know I would be droning away happily for an hour. It’s the obvious thing to do. But give it to a sound artist like Mendel Kaelen, and you’d best expect the unexpected. I’m not sure if Kaelen literally took the harmonium apart piece by piece, but he has certainly treated it that way in terms of sound.

The five long tracks on this relaxing but at times estranging album are all constructed around the various noises that can be coaxed out of the instrument, particularly the non-standard ones. The wheezing of the bellows, the passage of air through various parts, the creaking of joints: these are some of the bodily – almost human – sounds that are given centre stage.

At the same time, he doesn’t go down the radical path of minimalism and tonelessness; the harmonium is allowed to breathe its intended musical notes at times, droning and calm, but it rarely dominates the tracks on The Tragedy. Instead, they set up a beautiful and precarious balance between music and what we might call accidental sound. It’s quite like the neck slides we always hear in acoustic guitar playing, but instead of being relegated to the background, peripheral noises are put on the same level as the music in Kaelen’s meticulous compositions. If I’m not mistaken, Kaelen incorporates some field recordings and electronic manipulations as well, but they never overshadow the natural sounds that form the heart of this album.

Like many good albums in this style, The Tragedy is excellent meditative ambient listening, but the harmonium sounds themselves are so full of character you’re bound to perk up your ears quite often during a playthrough, which indicates that attentive listeners will find much to savour here as well. Kaelen’s debut Remembering What Was Forgotten had the same eye for detail, but he really hits his stride with the original approach displayed on this follow-up record, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with – or pulls apart – next time.

Reviewed by O.S.

[Note: I was, in fact, mistaken; there are no field recordings on this album. All sound is harmonium.]

Tracklist:

1. The Cloud (7:57)
2. The Stream (11:32)
3. The Horse (19:59)
4. The Heart (12:30)
5. The Dream (18:18)

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