Stephan Mathieu: Last Year, This Year

STEPHAN MATHIEU + CARO MIKALEF – Radioland (Panorámica)

This enthralling, but not-exactly-innovative music was recorded in 2011 during a presentation in Buenos Aires that also enclosed original visual materials; Mathieu employing a radio and processing, Mikalef eBowing the strings of a Columbia Phonoharp (I’ll promptly admit that I had to google to understand what that is, namely an ancient member of the zither family). This writer has been listening to the CD insistently in the last days, however a conclusive opinion about its impact on his mind has not materialized yet. With relative certainty, you could say that attending the live act would be better than just sitting and letting the mere transonic flux propagate around the house: judging from the photos, the changing colours and lights – besides an evidently reinforced sound system – would boost the cathartic shades of an all-inclusive experience quite a bit.

As far as the plain acoustic contents are concerned, we’re fundamentally encircled by masses of interlaced drones – of string and electronic origin – enhanced by the interference and hiss generated by the radio inside viscous clouds of fluctuating compatibility. The crossing of the respective paths produces diverse types of plangency, at times threateningly aphotic, elsewhere almost accordant. The closing minutes insert a chordal ebb and flow somehow remindful of William Basinski, enriched by shortwave ghosts. The transitions between varying states are interesting enough, but the level of consuming depth reached by Mathieu with the seminal Radioland (with which this version is only vaguely affiliated) is still distant. A nifty record, this one, that nonetheless is not going to be remembered for the eternity because of its partial resemblance to other releases in corresponding genres.



Palimpsest is an attempt to retell songs by Smog’s Bill Callahan in a fairly oblique way. Now, given that 2011 has marked the kickoff of Stephan Mathieu’s co-action with David Sylvian, this is a difficult-to-understand move, independently from the songwriter “covered” (…) by the duo. Sylvain Chauveau’s voice – previously unheard here, having only reviewed a CD of his (also rather derivative) piano pieces – is at best describable as a bargain-priced impersonation of Sylvian’s. Even if the instrumental settings preconditioned by Mathieu (comprising ebowed virginals and Phonoharp, viols, piano, French horn, cymbals, Farfisa organ, radio, processing) are as always very evocative and help kicking the whole’s overall worth upstairs, I still can’t perceive the rational motivation behind this business, unless I’m missing crucial (or ironic) details. In that case, a sizeable slice of humble pie will be eaten for not being argus-eyed.

Call me easily influenced, too: I was struck by reading the name “Adam Wiltzie” in the credits (he recorded the vocal parts). Maybe a coincidence, but several portions of these tracks appear indeed as (in)directly reminiscent of the sempiternal unhurriedness of Wiltzie’s renowned projects Stars Of The Lid and The Dead Texan. That said, if one has never enjoyed Mathieu’s finest achievements and forgets about my “why-a-pseudo-Sylvian” obsession, there is something sapid to be savored herein. The sound quivers and breathes, at times uneasily; low frequencies emerge like inexplicable icebergs from nowhere (“Soaking The Pages In Tea” is my preferred moment in that sense), hundreds of layers eliciting inscrutable and/or heavenly clusters. In a word, I would love to get rid of the entire Callahan thing from the concoction, and be happier. Mathieu – and, especially, Chauveau – might be a little angry after this writeup, but unfortunately I have a seriously limited tolerance for emulators.


POST SCRIPTUM: After the review went online, Stephan Mathieu and I entertained a friendly yet frank exchange of opinions. I find appropriate quoting here a few interesting explanations on his behalf, for which I thank him.

STEPHAN MATHIEU: “8 out of 10 make the Sylvian/Sylvain reference and I tell everybody to check out David Sylvian’s work again, from the 80s, 90s, 00s, since he seems to live as nothing but a faint cliché in everybody’s heads.
David is such a different kind of vocal performer, a true stylist, while Sylvain (a close friend of mine, not simply a “commercial choice”) is simply a guy who likes to sing, I guess he doesn’t even call himself a singer. If I hear him sing, I see him in front of me, his perfectly natural voice and expression.
During the (endless!) mixing process of the instrumentals and vocals it became clear to me that I wanted his performance completely uncluttered and natural, there are no effects whatsoever on his voice, I wanted to keep him honest, just like he is, and also rather in front of the music. So it’s a singer’s album for me, “Sylvain Chauveau with Strings” instead of “Stephan with a guest singer”.
Bottom line is, if a review is mainly based on the Sylvain/Sylvian thing, it is fishy to me. Got another one so far, it’s a bit of the same – Baritone crooner = David.
I’m aware that Palimpsest will heavily polarise, and I don’t care, since I’m quite proud of this collaboration”

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