Room for the Mysterious Folk
After more than a decade spent releasing records under the Somadrone name, 2018’s Wellpark Avenue represented a change of direction, if not something of a return, for Dublin musician Neil O’Connor. Somadrone’s previous two albums were in a more synth-driven vein and Wellpark Avenue saw a return to the somewhat more melodic and instrumentally varied early albums. But the album was also a point of departure, for it marked the last instance of the usage of Somadrone, and heralded in the moniker of Ordnance Survey.
Interestingly, at the same time, O’Connor quietly uploaded three recordings under his own name to the Bandcamp page of his label Scintilla Recordings. Octophonic Works, Electroacoustic Works Vol 1 and Ensemble & Electronics Works see him explore ambient music, harsh dronescapes and string and wind instruments. Even while sounding distinctly different from each other and from O’Connor’s other guises, the consistency across each individual recording make them feel like a series of preparatory sketch works, methodically testing physical space and musical form.
Coinciding with Wellpark Avenue was the use of the National Concert Hall as a recording location, and the two Ordnance Survey albums to date – last year’s Relative Phase and now Ampere – have seen O’Connor use the kind of collaborators one would expect to encounter at that venue. Ordnance Survey has also seen him shed the conscious influences of his Somadrone period, influences that have at times included British electronica duo Plaid, Chicago post-rock kingpins Tortoise, German electronic rock acts like To Rococo Rot and Kreidler and the hauntological pop of British band Broadcast.
Relative Phase may have featured a cameo appearance by Tortoise’s John McEntire on drums, but the record wasn’t stylistically beholden to following the sonic pathways carved out by others. It was guided instead by an unfettered desire to pursue a sound in a space in a particular moment. Where Wellpark Avenue sounded disjointed, this liberated approach has served Ordnance Survey well.
Although O’Connor has previously worked with such new music luminaries as Seán MacErlaine, Linda Buckley and Kate Ellis, Ampere sees him broaden his range of collaborators by selecting from the traditional Irish and folk ranks. It is clear from their various tracks that Dónal Lunny, Lankum’s fiddle-player Cormac Mac Diarmada, singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and pedal steel guitarist David Murphy share O’Connor’s sense of adventure.
As befits a project name related to the science of cartography, many of Ampere’s (a unit of electric current) song titles fixate on defined measurements (‘Madrigal’, ‘Enharmonics’, ‘Coefficients’), but much like a madrigal, it leaves room for the mysterious and unquantifiable, accommodating things that exist outside the grasp of observable understanding (‘Facades’, ‘Pulsar’, ‘In Abstentia’ and ‘Moving Statues’).
As well as recording at the NCH, O’Connor also recorded at the Seia Conservatory of Music in Portugal and the Department of Computer Science at the University of Limerick, where he teaches. It’s interesting to think of the spaces he used as there seems to be a resonance to some of the tracks, particularly ‘Madrigal’, which opens Ampere with a clarion of synths and strings, the latter supplied by Mac Diarmada. It’s an expanding vista of sound that seems to gently curve around gullies of pattering percussion and plucked strings before vaporising into the ether.
It sets a tone that is revisited throughout the record and immediately so in the ‘dawn of time’ synths that open ‘Moving Statues’. For this track, O’Connor is joined by the Crash Ensemble string section and Lunny on bouzouki. The track takes a more reflective, leisurely tone as Malachy Robinson punctuates the music with measured knots of double-bass notes as strings gently rise and fall. It’s a moody jazz sound with a slight Roy Budd Get Carter vibe thanks to Lunny’s wistful picking adding to the elegiac tone.
Occupying the central point of the album is ‘The Communion’. Around a multi-tracked vocal incantation from Nic Amhlaoibh wafts David Murphy’s guitar playing, each note he teases stretching and curling out more and more around Nic Amhlaoibh’s ancient voice and O’Connor’s rumbling synth. This leads beautifully to ‘Enharmonics’. Feeling like something of a mirror piece to ‘Moving Statues’, perhaps due to the presence of Crash Ensemble, the track suggests a scene of gathering storm clouds over the wide expanse of a prairie. Over the disturbed atmospherics created by Crash and O’Connor, Murphy plays a succession of high-pitched notes that seem to arch off into the heavens.
Like the early Somadrone albums, live percussion and drums, played by O’Connor, also feature – damp sounding on the almost jaunty ‘Facades’, and more ragged and muscular alongside the prowling bass on the loping ‘Coefficients’. A gritty number, it’s probably the most rockist piece on the record and it nicely tees up Ampere’s most exultant track, ‘Pulsar’. Decorated by euphoric keyboard melodies over a cascading motoric groove, ‘Pulsar’ climaxes in a locomotive percussive hiss.
Having appeared on the opening track, Mac Diarmada returns for the final number. The slow-burning ‘In Absentia’ sees a range of plucked notes echo and clatter against O’Connor’s manipulation of Steinway strings to bring the album to a cacophonous close.
As with any artist’s oeuvre, it is interesting to view the story of a particular record in the context of the preceding releases. But Ampere sounds like more than just the latest stage in a sequence that can be mapped and measured, it sounds like an alchemical combination.
To purchase Ampere, visit: https://scintillarecordings.bandcamp.com/album/ampere
Published on 22 October 2020
Don O'Mahony is a freelance arts journalist based in Cork.