Mike Cooper – Oceans of Milk and Treacle

Posted: 20 January 2022 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Room40 – 14th January 2022

I know I’m not alone in experiencing the sensation that large parts of my life have been spent wading through treacle. It may be something of a cliché, but it’s a valuable simile for that slow struggle.

Although these are the associations circulating sluggishly in my mind, they have no bearing on the origins of the album’s title, which is, as Cooper himself explains, ‘a soundtrack for an otherwise silent film. The title of the album, and of course the film, is borrowed from my late friend Fred Hardy’s book The Religious Culture of India – Power, Love and Wisdom, considered to be one of the most important books on the subject. In this book Fred wrote,

“In 1835 the historian Macaulay investigated whether there was anything in the traditional Indian systems of learning and education that could be used in the training of native personnel. In fairness to Mr Macaulay, we must remember that those were days long before the writings of a Tolkien or a Mervyn Peake. He came to the devastating conclusion that people who believe in oceans of milk and treacle had nothing to offer to a modern system of education. A straightforward, realistic assessment in an age that believed in science and realism! The effects were far-reaching. Traditional Indian ways of looking at the world were written off as obsolete. India was provided with three universities (Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, founded in 1857) as the hothouses to nurture a custom[1]built, English-speaking Indian intelligentsia. A new age began for India, and two of its inevitable consequences were the demand for independence and the production of atomic bombs and satellites by the post-independent Bhārat.”

This places Oceans of Milk and Treacle in an altogether more academic context, and perhaps, if only a shade, this knowledge does colour my appreciation of the work specifically, an album consisting of nine compositions.

The pieces themselves present a collaged array of sounds, from distant rumbles and clanging hammers, to wind-chimes and static crackles. The clanking windchimes and eerie vocal moans and bleats, which drift amidst a breaking storm on the first piece, ‘A Chart of the Wet Blue Yonder’ contrive to create something quite sinister, and a significant contrast from the playful Jazz frivolities of ‘Boogie Boards and Beach Rubbish’. Oceans of Milk and Treacle is very much an album of contrasts and of strange sounds, combining chillout grooves and collaged field sounds and weirdness, often simultaneously.

It’s one of those albums that packs in so much, it transcends definition or categorisation, for better and worse – because genre distinctions tend to be lazy marketing pitches, and music – or any other artistic medium – should just be. Why can’t a book simply be a book or a story? Why does I have to be crime fiction, a thriller, sci-fi, or otherwise tossed into the netherworld of literary fiction or speculative fiction? And so why can’t an album simply be an oddball amalgamation of all sorts and simply be an album? Electric guitar and Moogs or something tinkle around while something electronic happens in the background to fill the space like crickets scratching, but clearly actually something less natural in origin on the warping, bending array of almost-pleasantness of ‘Tirta Gangga’, a woozy collision of sedated bleeps and chimes that sounds like it’s nodding off near the end – and it’s not an unpleasant experience.

The title tracks goes deeper into jazz territory, but there’s trilling analogue noise humming in the background, and it nags away at the peripheral sense, while on ‘Mono-Hydra’, amidst tweeting birdsong, the musical elements sound warped., bent, as if the tape is stretched and the notes spin off their spindles to spin into strangeness. ‘Under Vertical Sunlight’ brings hectic percussion to the fore, amidst drones and groans, before drifting into abstraction on ‘Toward Great Piles of Masonry’, which sounds like a wander down a city street while the clubs are still open.

Oceans of Milk and Treacle isn’t really a journey, but then what is it? A meandering sonic amble through a succession of sonic spaces and a range of scenarios? Possibly. Whatever it s it’s interesting, and devoid of genre conventions.

AA

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