Active since 2009, the field recordings/tape loops project Stefanus Strom has attained somewhat of a modest cult status in glitchy spheres. This is iii! (2010) caught attention with little more than a collage of laden field recordings (not counting Deserted and Slow). Presence Loop (2010) turned that around and delivered its message as a monolith of dark ambiance. I Am Pretty Much You, released in May 2012, abandons what previously made up the project’s canon, and is the best Stefanus Strom album to date.
Politically laden source material has been cut in favor of traffic, cattle and wild geese. Charismatic preachers? Just how many field recordings of them are floating around, I wonder, taped and magnetized onto some or other ironic context or doom-laden drones? And what about the crazy talk of, say, their Orthodox competition? Or Zen lunatics? Why are those so underrepresented in the sampling business? Anyway, apart from some lone vestigial appearances on Waves II, Pretty Much You forgoes all of that stuff, and I don’t miss it. In return, we get a coherence of form and function that the record’s predecessors could only vaguely hint at.
The Waves trilogy is the spine of the album: a series of string loops with a mysterious recurring motif that changes mood with every iteration. Whenever they come to the front, fractured field recordings and radio emissions alike become jigsaws falling into place. Each time they do, Waves leaves a striking mark on the flow of the record. Laughing at Anna, another highlight of this new-found sense of musicality, manages to uphold a minute-long tension that even be called a traditional song structure.
The token audio manipulation techniques have been refined, and now serve a real purpose instead of being a mere exercise in style. Some explanation is given on Lovely Mouth, but the real key to understanding is the title track. Taken from a BBC documentary on frequency response, Stonehenge and resonance, the collage is a meditation on the physics of sound, its environmental parameters, and how our aural comfort-zone is just a shadow on the natural world. Pretty Much You guides you expertly into this eery sonic domain. Once filtered and modulated, the record’s everyday sound environments unveil their morose, otherworldly qualities. This altered perception shows us many things: the thin layer between noise and signal, the innate difficulty of communication, and the all-encompassing presence of death.
Yes, yes, this is pretty much an album about death; no Stefanus Strom album has ever been subtle – again, see Lovely Mouth. Another track, Flying Around, explains “…so, there wasn’t (…) a division between the soul and physical process…”, and the low-contrast, pastel technicolor of the cover art doesn’t help alleviate the notion that here, death and life are even less separated than two sides of the same coin. A convivial gathering is subverted through a burn mark that comes creeping through the other side, unavoidable, contagious.
Once lured beyond the comfortable shadows, it’s easy to experience the album as if heard through the ears of the dead. Time and pitch become flaky. Echoes belong somewhere else and have no effect. Suddenly, you’re caught drifting along once-familiar scenery, but this natural world’s sound stage is a strange and disorienting place. So, you’re dead, but what to do, what to do? Maybe some poltergeisting on Get Rid of Your Lovely Mouth? Or why not a bit of EVP at the end of Waves I? Maybe you’re dying for some honest-to-god communication, and your specter tries to tune in to the waves and radiation of old media. Pick up broadcasted conversations about mosquitoes and cannibalism (a topic remix scenes should flirt with more often, if only as a matter of introspection).
Turns out there’s plenty to do; stimuli everywhere. For a record obsessed with an altered perception of sound, one usual suspect is left out. Even the quieter sections are tense, and a pervasive forward-driven tempo disallows any kind of pause.Silence has no place here. This is all about sound as the constant changer, and death as the ultimate change. I am Pretty Much You is a frighteningly effective snapshot of both.
1) Infirmary Glume (2:28)
2) Waves I (Radiation) (3:58)
3) Laughing at Anna (4:52)
4) Get Rid of Your Lovely Mouth (6:54)
5) Go Home, Get Home, Stay Home, Fuck Home, Die Home (7:35)
6) Waves II (Rippled & Airborne) (3:31)
7) Waving About & Mosquitoes (2:11)
8) Flying Around & People (4:45)
9) Waves III (Media & Pain) (10:44)
10) I Am Pretty Much You (11:40)