90º South: The Barrier Silence

The folks at Ochre Records continue their mission to bring quality electronica to the people with this impressive CD by Kevin Fox, aka 90º South. Fox namechecks labelmates EAR on the insert, and he shares Sonic Boom’s fondness for vintage equipment; instruments used include valve amplifiers, Stylophones and ‘various mechanical and electronic toys’. Thankfully, however, such gimmickry is related to a minor role. Instead it’s the Fender electric piano that predominates, its warm emotional timbre lending a quiet strength to these nine mostly instrumental pieces.

As the artwork makes clear, this is programme music. The sleeve note is an extract from a poem by Edward Wilson, the chief scientific officer on the 1911-12 Antarctic expedition, and there is a strong sense of exploration and discovery in the music. The unexplored landscape is evocatively described through the sparing use of bass and percussion. Fluid guitar and piano patterns depict the human presence, their attenuation hinting at the insignificance of the explorers within the vastness of the landscape.  The mood is mostly quiet and sober, evoking stillness and contemplation rather than excitement or danger. Only on ‘Streamliner’ does Fox break into a sweat, pumping out a bustling groove reminiscent of Stereolab.

Occasionally, as on ‘ITOM’, Fox’s debt to Sonic Boom (in his Spectrum incarnation) becomes rather too obvious, as a burbling synth threatens to overwhelm the guitar and piano. But this is a rare lapse of judgement. Otherwise, the tone of the album is summed up in the marvellous ‘Winter Road Movie’, with acoustic and electric elements darting among each other in vivid and highly expressive interplay.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 7, 2000)

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