Ashtray Navigations - Four Raga Moods / Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes (Revival CD-Rs)
Ashtray Navigator Phil Todd not-so-recently sent me two quasi-new discs from his absolutely-new Revival imprint which, as the name hints at, is a vehicle for Phil to reissue old Ashtray Navigations sides that have since fallen by the way side. Which is somewhat ironic I guess because "Four Raga Moods" and "Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes" are two of the more popular, or well-known, early Ashtray releases. According to the helpful tidbits on the backs of the sleeves, "Four Raga Moods" was originally released by Phil's own Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers in 1997, while "Pearls" saw release first in 1998 via Solipsism and then again in 2000 on Betley. Both these new Revival editions are limited to 100 copies each, and come housed in slick bootleg-style cardboard sleeves with glued on glossies and Xeroxes. The stamped CD-R labels are a sexy touch too.
I think I only ever heard bits of "Four Raga Moods" but I never heard it in its entirety, only its spiritual brother "Four More Raga Moods" from 2006. Whereas "Four More" is sloshed in vibrant Day-Glo colours and practically spilling over with druggy psychedelic excess, "Four" is almost a polar opposite. Or at least taking similar techniques and applying them in a whole 'nother fashion. There are indeed four untitled tracks here, the first of which clocks in at a monolithic 41 minutes. Compared to more recent Ashtray indulgences, it's downright minimal, based around what I'd approximate to be harmonium, guitar, cheap percussion, field recordings, effects pedals, violin...but never all at the same time. The only two general constants are a hazy pool of tape buzz and static and a woozy handdrum rhythm, beyond that it's caution to the wind. At times it sounds like Phil's trying to communicate a greater whole through an impenetrable wall of static, like a busted Walkman picking up alien satellite feeds or a shortwave radio station occuring just beyond the limits of your dial. Only in the dying few minutes of the song does a glorious wash of chime and guitar cut clear through the woozy dissonance, and it has me thinking the whole thing was recorded not at all as a joke, but maybe with tongue planted squarely in cheek. Whatever the case, it's a nice enough voyage once you reach final destination, but not one I'd be keen on taking often. Sandwiched between that opening behemoth and a 20-minute closer are two shorter tracks, both cut from a similar cloth. It sounds like field recordings form the basis of these two as well, with wind as the premise for #2 and rain for #3. Layered atop these earthly sounds are hulking, mechanical loops like steam engines constantly lurching forward (#2) and haunting, droning tones that twist in Phil's hands to reveal their multiple, luminous sides. The last track, in contrast to the mostly-minimal moves of the previous three, is all over the place initially - quick jump cuts of synthesizer chirping, conversation snippets, laser beam crashes, and the like, before settling into an ominous industrial oscillator rumble with a thick, juddering drone that might incite vertigo in the unprepared. I know my nose was bleeding, but the gentle folksy acoustic guitar/weather channel duet tacked onto the end plugged it up real good.
"Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes" comes a year later, but retains many similar elements to the aforementioned release, not to mention currently Ashtray activity. It's a single 48-minute piece moving through roughly three acts. The first takes up about the first 20 minutes and is similar in form to the first track of "Four Raga Moods" - a sprawling background of ambient shimmer and gloss over which a multitude of junky equipment is used and abused, most notably a set of tiny bells and chimes that sounds a lot a mess of cymbals being played by ordinary household silverware. Phil's Psychedelic Breakfast, if you will. Later the snarl of Phil's guitar sparks begin to take over like storm clouds brewing over a lazy Sunday, only to dissipate entirely into "act two" - crumbling guitar quakes rubbed out over a warbly resonance resembling either church organs as recorded from just outside the huge double doors that'd lead you into the cathedral, or the later stages of "I Am Sitting in a Room". Whatever the dosage, it's real great and affecting and as the final chords of the guitar start to dissolve, I've already begun feeling seperation anxiety, like I don't want to abandon the weird n' warm cocoon spun for me. The final ten minutes see a final shift wherein the reverbing mush from the previous is retained except crunchier threads of guitar near-riffage take hold to bleach and cleanse the mind, recalling similar later and not-so-later-day moves by Birchville Cat Motel or Richard Youngs. Heavy.
These early works from Phil Todd are certainly more difficult to make it through than the full-blown acid-stained charges he's been leading more recently, but that doesn't make em any less rewarding. You could argue more for the opposite, in fact. It's great to have these early documents available once more (I hope represses are in order once the initial 100 runs are off the shelves), as they're not only great for tracing the leaps Todd and the Ashtray Navigations project have made in the ten years since, but they're also real good listens. A history lesson that's both educational and fun? I can dig it.
Phil asked me to mention some specifics in case you're looking at picking up one or both of these, to which I'll gladly oblige. £6 in the U.K., €10 in Europe, $14 for the rest of the world, postage included, and you can Paypal to ashtraynavigations (at) hotmail (dot) com.
Click here to listen to MP3 samples from the above albums