Robert Turman, "Flux"

Sunday, 23 June 2019 00:00 Anthony D'Amico Reviews - Albums and Singles
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cover imageRecently reissued for the second time on Spectrum Spools, Robert Turman's Flux is widely regarded to be one of the most unique and essential releases to emerge from the ‘80s cassette underground.  Originally self-released back in 1981, Flux was Turman's solo debut after a brief tenure in NON's earliest incarnation, but the only common ground the two projects share is a general fondness for tape loops and vintage exotica.  Nearly four decades later, Flux's tender, bleary, and hiss-soaked minimalism no longer feels particularly radical, but the passing of time has done nothing to diminish the album's simple and gently hallucinatory beauty.  Flux casts quite a lovely and hypnotic spell, conjuring an aesthetic that lies somewhere between Andrew Chalk and a dream set in an ancient Buddhist temple.

Spectrum Spools

Spectrum Spools first reissued Flux back in 2012, roughly thirty years after the last cassette incarnation surfaced.  Since I do not own any of the original tapes, I cannot say how much Rashad Becker's remastering job transformed the sound quality, but I can safely state that it is not quite the same album that it was originally.  For one, the original album was about ten minutes shorter than the reissue (though it likely reflects the "extended remix" that Turman himself issued in 1982).  The other noteworthy change is that all of the song titles vanished somewhere along the way.  Using my superior powers of deduction, I have concluded that the kalimba-based first piece was once "Kalimba" and the Chinese-sounding third piece was “Mu Shin,” but the identities of the other four pieces remain shrouded in mystery. 

While all of six pieces are structurally and aesthetically quite similar, the two halves of the album have distinctly different characters.  For lack of a better word, I will characterize the first half as the more "exotic" side, while the second half is entirely devoted to looped piano melodies.  I prefer the first side because it is a bit more adventurous melodically and rhythmically, but the true beauty of Flux lies in how much Turman was able to do with so little (both compositionally and equipment-wise).  He did not merely transcend his limitations–he made them an integral part of the work, crafting an album that feels endearingly ramshackle and intimate, like a broken antique music box creeping into my dreams while I sleep.

Flux's defining masterpiece is the 15-minute opener, which skillfully weaves together loops of plinking and hollowly ringing kalimba tones to cast a gently pulsing and meditative spell.  Turman was truly inspired on all fronts when he conjured up that piece, as the notes smear together in an eerily lovely way and the interaction of the loops is both trance-inducing and unpredictable.  Moreover, it feels wonderfully timeless and otherworldly, as if I am hearing a decaying tape of an old ethnographic field recording.  Happily, the third piece is of almost the same caliber, resembling a swaying and sensuous Chinese dance heard through a hypnagogic fog.  If Turman had managed to come up with four more variations of that same magical formula, I would probably be writing him a gushing and breathless fan letter right now, but he decided to explore some different directions instead. 

Some of those directions are admittedly quite wonderful, so I cannot lament Turman's thirst for variety.  I am especially fond of the tender and delicate second piece, which sounds like a shimmering web of woozy, indistinct electric piano arpeggios.  It is probably Turman's most harmonically ambitious piece on the album, as the notes all linger and smear together in a warm, languorous haze.  The second half of the album, on the other hand, sounds quite convincingly like a badly worn tape of a classical pianist playing alone in his room.  The sixth piece is the most lovely of that batch, as the notes lazily and erratically tumble in melancholy arpeggios, but the other two pieces have some nice touches as well.  In the fifth piece, for example, Turman occasionally sounds like he is purposely playing clumsy one-finger melodies like a beginner, but sneakily assembles them into a coherent and compelling whole as the piece progress.  The fourth piece, on the other hand, is more slow-building and elegiac, yet feels hypnotically pulsing due to an almost inaudible beat.

While Flux's second half is not nearly as unique and instantly gratifying as its first, I am hesitant to characterize it as an uneven album.  It would be more accurate to say that the pleasures of the later pieces are simply a bit more modest: they are hopelessly eclipsed by the opening three-song streak of white-hot inspiration, yet they still feel like worthy and likable iterations of the album's central themes.  They belong here.  A lengthier hot streak would admittedly be welcome, yet that is beside the point.  The important thing is that Flux was an absolutely revelatory release–the best moments feel like they were at least twenty-five years ahead of their time.  It is quite an impressive achievement to be so far ahead of the curve and to be so confidently out of step with one's contemporaries.  For those reasons, Flux has definitively earned its status as one of the landmark releases of DIY '80s cassette culture.  The real reason that it keeps being reissued, however, is that it would still be an excellent album even if it had been recorded yesterday.  To some degree, I suppose Flux befits from the fact that loops and tape hiss are still very much in vogue these days, but the opening piece is probably great enough to have reignited that vogue all on its own (if it had been necessary).

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 24 June 2019 06:28