Review Summary: The rich, dense drones British turntablist Philip Jeck creates on his 2002 record Stoke are desolate yet teeming with life.
If Philip Jeck were to emerge as an indie star today, the press would be all over his backstory. He's a 62-year-old British artist who makes music mainly with turntables and whose Wiki page has identified him at different times as a choreographer, prankster, woodsman, alchemist, and taxidermist, among other things. His best-known work is an 1993 sound installation comprised of 180 turntables simultaneously spinning. In other words, quite the character.
Yet the music Jeck makes on his studio albums is difficult not to take at face value. It's certainly not hard to believe that his music was made mostly with turntables, but it would be hard to tell from listening out of context. His 2002 album Stoke epitomizes his craft. A rich, carefully paced album of abstract drone, Stoke plays with sound in a way that's somewhat whimsical but yields often frightening results.
The songs on Stoke are menacing, but mainly through conjuring a fear of the unknown than through any particular tension or discord. The low moans in the background of "Lambing" could be animal, human, or mechanical with equal probability, but they're undeniably eerie. The ending of "Above" sounds a lot like a chicken, but it also sounds like the release of some massive tension. Jeck's skill at creating noises that are simultaneously evocative and implaceable give the album an almost psychedelic, dream-like quality.
Stoke's sonic inscrutability also has the effect of increasing the emotional power of the actual human voices that show up intermittently throughout the album. Humans are so rare on Stoke that the few voices that show up are imbued with an incredible loneliness. "Pax" is based around a molasses-slow vocal loop, a gorgeous organ loop, and a clipped vocal sample that seems to vibrate in thin air. Its sense of human warmth simultaneously sets it apart from the rest of the album and makes it a fitting centerpiece--it's a clearing in the midst of the dense sound forest that is this record.
Even more impressive is the climactic, 15-minute "Close," which ends with a loop of what sounds like a pitch-shifted sample from a pop song. It's one of the most gorgeous single samples I've ever heard. It's also uncanny in that it sounds almost exactly like Oneohtrix Point Never, a sound artist who first emerged half a decade after Stoke came out. Though this may be coincidence, I would be very unsurprised if Oneohtrix had heard and been inspired by this album.
Turntables be damned--Stoke is an exemplary drone album, a perpetually shifting soundworld that's desolate yet alive with bestial chatter. And though it may lack the sense of humor that its creator's resume suggests he possesses, it's rarely a bore, and it certainly never feels lifeless.