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Michael Begg - Vanitas

A 17th century painting by the Dutch painter Edwaert Collier adorns the sleeve of this latest release from Michael Begg. Books, pamphlets, trinkets, musical instrument lie strewn amidst bones and a skull. The painting reflects on mortality and the transience of earthly goods and pursuits. Begg's music is just a transient residing in liminal moods and melancholic states. With Deryk Thomas - whose painting appears on the back cover, Begg is part of the experimental music group Human Greed but over the past few years Begg has increasingly worked solo on commissions and site specific installations, including the award winning Titan: A Crane Is A Bridge, an electroacoustic sound installation created and performed on a crane overlooking the River Clyde in Clydebank. Over a number of solo releases, which may or may not now exceed the number of Human Greed releases Begg has consistently challenged himself in terms of projects, compositions and sound sources. On Vanitas he built a diverse and surprising assortment of instruments including a sampled wood burning stove, tuned martini glasses, e-bow autoharp, stolen French music box, loose piano string droner, and a blow torch treatment of glass sheets. He also made his first foray into sonification where, as he wrote on the Omnempathy website he "programmed NASA information about a particular lunar eclipse early in the 16th century, which I mapped onto a series of 6 solfeggio frequencies".

The result of that experiment comprises 'Invocation: Solfeggio Sonification, Lunar Eclipse, March 21st, 1513', the first track of Vanitas which immediately slips into a melancholic mood, with a series of textural drones. Its drone based minimalism, reflecting the tidal pull of the moon, draws comparisons with elements of Coil's moon musick.

Begg to me has always been an experimental musician, but lately he's now referred to as a composer and in some ways maybe that's always been the case as tracks merge orchestral passages and elecctronics with experimental sound. On Vanitas, 'Identity Cards' swells with orchestral strains and low end drones, offset by the tinkering chimes of a music box and what sounds like singing bowls, while the sustained drone of 'Have Faith' is enlightened by melodic keys and the chime of bells, before it is subsumed by deep textural churn and the scrape of violins as it sinks into queasy electronic erosion.

A strain of classicalism comes to the fore on 'Glass On Glass' creating a fragile and tranquil beauty as it moves to a subtle blend of droning, wistful strings and glassy tones. 'Glass On Glass' is notable for being the first recording featuring the Black Glass Ensemble, a collective of classical and experimental musicians - who include Ben Ponton of Zoviet France - who provide orchestrations full of sorrow and longing, before it ebbs out on electronic flutter.

Begg is adept at working with the distant, disembodied and ethereal and you can hear it in 'The Little Shoes, For Piano', where you conjure images of a ghost child dancing playfully amidst its graceful piano score. Even if there is beauty within the drone that Begg creates, he offsets it with other elements, as he does on 'Your Papers Are Approved' with the patter of taps and sound grates. His compositions are as much about extraneous sound and environment as it with melody and music.

It's interesting that a sense of environment and landscape slip into the tracks rooted to a distinct geographical place. 'First Night In Mexico' is situated in that space in between, its slight melody gently flowing in the gap between orchestrations and electronics. Even better is 'Black Hill' which references the titles of an earlier Human Greed album, Black Hill: Midnight At The Blighted Star and Begg's recent Black Hill Chronicles podcast. The alluring nocturnal drone and orchestral shifts map those liminal spaces Begg's compositions inhabit. Those cat faces and childlike moon faces, painted by Deryk Thomas which featured on the sleeves of releases by Human Greed, may have pared them as kindred spirits to Current 93; remember Tibet appeared on Black Hill: Midnight At The Blighted Star, but Begg's obsession with exploring landscapes and the lunar push him closer to Coil, even though he doesn't, as far as I'm aware, subscribe to any schools of mysticism.

The spindly, spiralling tentacles of sound of 'Outboard' seems as if created on guitar feedback augmented by limber bass guitar tones, with slow darting squawks and buzzes. Whether those sounds emanate from a guitar or not, it's not really that important especially in an album which employs many custom hand built apparatus as musical instruments but it certainly feels like a new sound source for Begg.

Meditative and reverential, 'Vanitas End Papers' attains a contemplative atmosphere rendered in subtle drone layers. Sustained, shifting and shimmering, it conjures up the vastness of the night sky pierced by the moon reflecting in pools of waters. It is followed by '1983, 0200 Hours', an expansive minimal evolving drone based piece, and the longest track on Vanitas, painted with a darker hue, daubed with shimmery shadows and glinting highlights. Absent of a melodic core, it is left to the scatter of toiling piano keys to disturb the brooding sound shift as they coalesce into a rumble of discordant chords towards the end before Vanitas bows out on 'Black Hill End Coda' its uplifting airy electronics willing us, once more, to lift up our head to gaze at the moon.

Begg is a resourceful and imaginative composer and while his music is underpinned by electronics and drones he doesn't just rely on subtle shifts, his music is injected with a myriad of other sound sources and orchestrations, all subject to studio processing to realise these wondrous and startling tracks. Vanitas is augmented by a unique palette of instruments and the first airing of the Black Glass Ensemble but the effect of his compositions remains perfect for those twilight hours. Why when his work, merging electronics, drones, orchestrations and field recordings, is so captivating and alluring Vanitas is only available in an edition of 150 copies really staggers me. Vanitas is where electronics and drones meet orchestral passages in praise of the moon. For more information go to Omnempathy and to buy digitally go to Omnempathy Bandcamp