There are some releases that grab you by the collar and don’t let go. Others seem to wash over you gently, but only later do you realise you can’t get them out of your head. The latter is true of Distance on Ground by Martha Skye Murphy and Maxwell Sterling.
As the title suggests the cassette is about the idea of travelling. Each track fills the entire side of the cassette with haunting vocals, deep drones, skittering electronics and wonky melodies. The recordings took place during two mammoth sessions that saw Murphy and Sterling only talk with their instruments. These recordings were then layered and edited in such a way to make them sound almost like a live session, captured straight to tape.
’86 km’ opens the album with a low drone. This grows into something slightly ominous. Over this Murphy’s vocals appear. Instead of singing, or reciting words, Murphy uses her voice like an instrument. Contorting it to create different tones and textures. While this is going on, Sterling’s bass gives something tangible to latch on to. It grounds everything and allows Murphy’s vocals to drift about like fine mist on a moor at dawn. ’93 km’ follows on this, with slightly more bite in places. The tone and drones feel angular, whilst continuing the ethereal nature of the opener.
The album works best when you forget you are listening to it. This might sound illogical, or even like a slight on the recordings, but it isn’t. If you try and focus your attention on the music, you’ll miss all the subtle detail. When you reach the point when you are oblivious to it you really start to notice more about it.
Distance on Ground is about travel, movement and not standing still. When I was little, we went on lots of long car journeys. Especially during holidays. My parents loved it. I was non-plussed. What I found was when I was focusing my anger, and boredom, at the passing landscape, it looked like where we’d come from. Motorways. Lamp posts. Provincial local shops. Dilapidated parks, but when I stopped staring, I found lots of subtle differences. Different style of railings, lampposts, adverts for different locally sourced products in shop windows, names of petrol stations, etc, etc. When these things started to change again, I knew we were entering a new area. This is all on Distance on Ground. As it progresses you’ll notice Murphy’s vocals changing in tone and duration. Sterling’s double bass will sound totally different to how it was at the start of the side. The changes are made so minimally you won’t even register them happening.
As well as listening to Distance on Ground conventionally Murphy and Sterling have also offered a way to experience the album on the move. They have a website, distanceonground.com, that allows you to watch a series of videos, in various locations, for the exact duration of each side. This is a travelogue for the stationary. As you sit and watch the images of country trails, inner city multistorey carparks and cruising above the clouds in an aeroplane you start to get a new appreciation for the music. With the changing of the journeys the music changes with it. While tracking in an arid countryside you notice the space within the compositions. On a busy downtown freeway, you notice the tight interplay between Murphy and Sterling. And when soaring above the clouds a feeling of tranquillity oozes from the music.
What the point of all this is I’m still not sure, travel is good maybe, but listening to Distance on Ground I’m reminded of those holiday car rides. When adventure loomed large through the windshield and all the boring conventions of home were disappearing rapidly in the rear-view mirror.
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