Les Albums Claus – 30th April 2018

Stuart Bateman

Ben Bertrand comes armed with a bass clarinet and a bunch of effects. Recorded live at les ateliers claus in October 2017, NGC 1999 doesn’t sound in any way live, and the five pieces feel very structured and are sequenced in a most cohesive fashion. While the number of singer-songwriters using loop pedals to fill out their sound seemed to explode about 12 years ago, to the point that it’s long been tedious and predictable to witness someone with an acoustic guitar and a little synth layering up the vocals and building simple three-chord strums up to epic choral dimensions.

Bertrand’s application of the equipment is both more subtle and more innovative. The repetitive motifs ripple and bounce against one another, and while there is layering, Bertrand’s restraint is noteworthy, keeping things sparse, low-key, minimal.

Taking its title from a dust-filled bright nebula in the constellation of Orion, 1,500 light years from earth – and distinctive for a black patch at its centre which is believed to be completely empty – the compositions are thematically-linked and contrive to convey a sense of floating in space.

Things to threaten to spiral out of control with shrill, electronic whistles sending the end of ‘V380 Orionis’ (a multiple star system at the centre of Orion and the primary source of light for NGC 1999) skyward. But thereafter it’s very much sparser and quieter. ‘Malkauns on Kitt Peak’ brings a change of tone for the album’s mid-point: a hushed, brooding expanse of elongated pulses which echo out into the darkness, it’s spacious yet strangely airless. For the first time on the album, the clarinet sounds like a clarinet as it meanders through a fizz of skittering treble that falls like shooting stars.

The pieces flow together and transition effortlessly as Bertrand bounces through the abyss with an assurance and tranquillity that’s soothing, but nevertheless strange.

AA

Ben Bertrand – NGC 1999

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