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Marc Carlton - For Imagination CD (album) cover


Marc Carlton


Crossover Prog

4.33 | 2 ratings

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5 stars 'For Imagination' is by far Marc Carlton's most abstract work. There are three tracks, all over 20 mins long, each split into subsections for which we are not given the time references. Combine this with progressively more 'far-out' themes and instrumentation over the course of the album and you begin to understand the demands this work places on the listener. Each track is a reflection on imagination and the inner life in a different dimension, with only the smallest crumbs of guidance given along the way. Here's what I've come to think over the past 4+ years...

The theme that draws together the first track, 'Cityscape', is imagination in the context of our everyday lives. Is the inner life of the mind compatible with our existence in a world that can often seek to distract us from it? This is seen in the sense of juxtaposition throughout the track, the interplay between synths and guitars an early example of this as a tight synthesiser rhythm sounds clean and sharp in contrast to the grungy electric guitar that meanders around it. The central question is also examined in another way. The track is peppered throughout with the sounds of human habitation: drills; traffic; chatter; to which the music then 'reacts' in various ways. This is the story of one mind's journey through the crowd, trying to come to terms with the reality and absurdity of other minds and of one's separateness from them.

At about 7:00, jarring, industrial sounding percussive clanks and bass notes create an uneasy rhythm, always shifting and unpredictable. Out of this grows something that touches the ethereal: the slow rise of the synthesiser here at once eerie and beautiful, it doesn't take over from the earlier rhythm but instead sits alongside it, transmuting it, like trespassing into something ancient and mysterious.

Something that must be mentioned is that after another brief quiet around 10:30, the sound of drills and building work unpleasantly cut through, heralding a brief heavy metal pastiche(!) It's bittersweet comic relief, as just as it gets going it abruptly breaks down to a commentary from the background of 'Argh!' Is it a comment on the kind of music we 'expect' to grow out of a bit of industrial drilling, as a failure of imagination? Or a reflection that not every fleeting idea that comes to mind can be successfully realised? I can't say, but I can tell you this is Carlton as his most obviously playful and tongue in cheek, and well worth longer consideration than the quick laugh of the comedy itself.

Around 13:00 chatter in the background and 'lounge music'-esque electric guitar evoke maybe a restaurant scene. The guitar becomes more and more meandering and then falls away, as if it can't maintain the melody it began. The section that follows and seems to be in opposition to this is fabulous, the guitar solo resolute and full of energy. Drums and harpsichord come in and refocus, reaffirm the theme. It carries you away with it until all of a sudden around the 18 minute mark it abruptly stops, leaving you with the sound of traffic and footsteps, and coming back to earth with a bump.

After this a sombre synth reflects as if trying to reconcile the two worlds. One note repeats, buzzy and insistent in the mix, reminiscent of a heartbeat or maybe the ringing of a telephone. Around it an eerie melody unfolds, interspersed with the occasional jarring piano notes to add to the tension and dread. When this resolves into rain and four last bells it is with a mixture of relief and trepidation. This serves to enhance the joy of the final section, the synth here dancing around the bass notes which gradually take over to tell a story of their own, grounding and accepting. The track does not end but rather fades out, signalling no ultimate conclusion or final twist but rather the continuation of the intercourse between the two things, imagination and reality. Carlton's liner notes indicate that although he views the separation of imagination from reality as important, "it is possible to live in both of these worlds simultaneously and without overlap." I think that is the idea at play here.

The second track, 'Somniare Aude, Sapere Aude' makes me think of imagination in its purest form, the unrestricted world of our dreams, not only from the title but also because the opening section reminds me so much of a lullaby. Perhaps in contrast to the previous track, the acoustic guitar and strings are so gentle and uncontested the sound is like the purest flight of unlimited fancy. The piano and pensively strummed guitar section at around 3 minutes in is reminiscent of Carlton's earlier album, 'Reflex Arc', and this is a comparison that recurs throughout the track, both in the instrumentation and in the way that one melody shifts dreamlike into the next. Brief moments of darkness, first introduced around the 9 minute mark, come not from external forces like in 'Cityscape' but instead organically unfold, signalling the power of imagination and the mind to take us to places of doubt and hesitation as easily as to those of wonder, and recalls the non-linear and surprising narratives of our dreams. Although the track is mostly gentle in tone there is plenty of energy within it, as can be seen around 13:38 when the drums come in and start a section full of motion and excitement. At first dreamy strings and piano take a back seat to the drums but increasingly begin to carry the story themselves. Later, there is a great back-and-forth between distorted guitar and the more gentle melody, with the latter then echoed by faint synths at 16:50 in a way that will put the hairs on the back of your neck on end. There is a real sense of synthesis between the more gentle sounds and the distorted elements, although they structurally seem to be in opposition they end up complementing each other, as if to say: our minds contain multitudes, but there is no real contradiction, they are all us. For me the final few incongruous notes once again recall a lullaby or child's musical box, pulling the various threads of the piece together.

After that we are straight into 'Outward' which is certainly the most unfamiliar territory for previous listeners of Carlton's work, or indeed previous listeners of music in general. A piece that owes a lot to both to Tangerine Dream at their most abstract and Robert Fripp's Soundscapes series, it certainly challenges the listener to look at it closely, and to keep doing so for almost half an hour! Here, spacey echoey synths evoke both a sense of vastness and a sci-fi feel, in a way that recalls the album's cover art. Like Soundscapes, it feels structureless at first but then shapes begin to appear in the rising and falling of the sound. This fades to one growly, deep note, growing gradually louder. Around it other sounds come and go, like huge unknown objects passing in the dark. The sounds change in pitch in a way that sounds like sirens or the calling of unknown creatures. (I may have been watching too much Star Trek: TNG but it makes me think of the season three episode, Tin Man). The sound is so alien and abstract that I can only describe it in such oblique ways. It's fascinating that in such a vacuum the ear eagerly grabs onto the first signs of what could become anything like a melody, so when the new synths grow out of the void at 6:49 they seem to carry all the more weight, asking us to reflect on what we've heard. There's something like a sadness to it, a loneliness, but it's calm - wise.

Around 11:40 this fades with a boom and once again we are left with quiet except for a rhythmic, repetitive sound that almost seems to be beeping, like a beacon emitting its signal into nothingness, over and over. More synths growing - impossibly slowly - louder, like the approach of something. A thrumming like engines. It's amazing what the brain projects onto something so minimal. I have a whole story worked out of a journey through space, approaching a new planet as, so gradually, the sounds become warmer and more familiar again (eventually there are drums and even guitar!) but I'm aware it is just that, projection. But that's exactly 'Outward''s fascination - it makes you examine that, what you bring of yourself to the music, the power of the listener's imagination. It's not just for the artists, it's for all of us.

If you haven't heard any of Carlton's work, I wouldn't start here. But I wouldn't miss it out either. For Imagination is unapologetic for what it is, which is music at its most serious, inviting and important. It toys with the role of listener, it makes no effort to ease the journey. But it's also brimming with reward for that effort. It's the essential nature of prog, pared back and unmitigated. I can't recommend it enough.

simbelmyne | 5/5 |


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