Allison's Gate's latest album is a beautiful collage of memories.
The music of Allison’s Gate, an improvisational voice and sound project from Brighton, functions as much as an aggregator of sounds as it does a musical composition. Perhaps sometimes there are “instruments,” but more than that there are memories. Memories that cause trauma, memories that cause anguish, and memories that cause bliss. Sink or Swim, the project’s debut LP on Memorials of Distinction, is an album of memories. It exists more like a photo album brought out by your grandmother or a handful of trinkets from a past relative than anything else. But sometimes, among the dusty record scratches or deteriorating delays of the songs, the question arises: to whom do these memories belong?
The entire concept of the “ambient” music genre stemmed from a sense of sound as space. Early ambient records were sustained through their teleportation from map to map, oftentimes taking their listeners with them. But for Carolina McPhail, the project’s orchestrator, the movement of time is much more interesting than any worldly travel. Many of Sink or Swim's track titles hold a timely connection, whether concise or expansive. “Jewellery Box - 25:08:16 19.58” focuses in on the barren simplicity of a single memory: a musical box completing its only know repetition. Whereas “2008-2016,” the album’s final track, laces reverb through an encompassing palette of droning keys and voice. McPhail is tactful and delicate in her placement of these memory shards, put together like cut up magazines on construction paper. But interestingly enough, her talent reveals itself most when the specificity of these moments breaks down. Take as example “Beautiful Amateur.” The record’s centerpiece and greatest accomplishment, this movement at once finds perfect harmony between silence and repetitive improvisation. The lyrics reflect a certain stream of consciousness, straining and trailing off, that compliments the dedicated repetitions of guitar behind them.
You'll likely find traces of an artist like Felicia Atkinson, or sometimes of even more memory-driven artists like The Caretaker when the album dies down to highlight its pittering disintegration. But at moments like the relatively maximalist “Can’t Won’t (m)” or in the happy-go-lucky piano melody of “Jeffrey’s Leap,” the project taps into a truly outstanding beauty of its own. Despite the listener’s context, it’s highly unlikely that the sounds on Sink or Swim don’t trigger some response in the internal memoriam. The songs almost open themselves up to be shared, for the author’s memories at the source of each piece to find some overlap within the mind of the audience. Maybe sometimes it happens by happy accident, or maybe sometimes it occurs inside a most intentional framework. Either way, the best quality offered by Allison’s Gate’s work presented here is that it gives you the space to find that out on your own. Silence - even the most fuzzy, scratchy, not-really-silence silence - plays an essential and spacious role throughout the 11 tracks. Sink or Swim is not a project that demands your attention, in fact it makes it quite easy to get lost in yourself as you follow its stark poetry. But when it finds its moments of beauty - really shiny, blistering beauty - it’s impossible to look away.
Listen to Allison's Gate on bandcamp.
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Elijah Fosl is a freelance music and culture writer who's really bad at describing themselves. They hail from Louisville but live in Chicago where they work, ferociously devouring cassette tapes and local produce. Find them on Twitter at @elifosl or online at elifosl.com.