Bamboo Stilts – Beneath The Bark (Eilean Records, 2015)


Despite the pairing of Orla Wren and Leigh Toro on their first collaborative effort, Bamboo Stilts lives up to its namesake by leaving us rather high and dry on the emotional impact front. Whilst on some of my earlier listens I thought the new record Beneath The Bark was quite an interesting electroacoustic affair, subsequent explorations have left me feeling like there’s something left to be desired; across the 50 minutes of field recordings, various synth processings, piano, guitar and stringed drones there were extremely few defining moments where I felt like the record captured me, often due to its distinct lack of consistency.

Its unassuming nature is especially apparent right from the opening piece “Peel Away”, unwinding naive crinklings and snippets of lo-fi synth expressions to minimal effect. Its faint and earnest presentation just feels hollow, and its minimal airs sound emotionally devoid and lacking in depth; many nonspecific moments throughout the record could have done with more textural input I felt. It also swings quite wildly through sonic themes too; followup “Saturn Shores” is both alien in its concept as well as its position within the record, far removed from anything we hear subsequently. Filled with flanging synths and creeping drone lines it unravels a certain imposing confusion and twisted awe but its outlying presentation is too distracting, not to mention its rather chaotic abruptness.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great moments here either; “The Hand” is a rich and well balanced piece that floats lush strings and tinkling miscellania to create an inviting and pleasant soundscape, framing it strongly against a growing electronic darkness and mechanical bleeps and whirrings that threaten to upset the balance; its closing minute is filled solely with resigned acoustic guitar pickings and is probably the single best 60 seconds of the entire album. “Bow Guitar” appropriately proceeds it and twists that pure sound into echoic and ancient distortions lost in a sea of static, descending into disharmonious and tumbling noise as it loses its battle with time. In a similar vein, penultimate beauty “Piano Neglect” warps the pristine elegance of the piano, funneling menacingly bleak scrapings and whinings from some dark corners as it shames this lost instrument, which is allowed to creep out in some later moments in sad, slow, lilted strokes, like a dog with its tail between its legs.

It’s just that the weaker pieces are, as I said, distractingly weak; title track “Beneath The Bark” is an esoteric mass of bleeping electronica and suppressed oscillations that drags its heels and fails to come to the surface, hiding away under bland obfuscation, whilst “Porthole” scratches out thin nothings from primitive synth ploddings and bleak stringed accompaniments, its simplistic procession supplemented with dry and meandering creakings and crawlings. The only track that truly stands out to me is the closer, “At The Cliff Edge”; it seems to bring an appropriate finality to the rambling and disjointed collection of pieces that precede it as it faces its close, keeping itself distant and mysterious in drones that grow but never materialise, in strings that ebb and flow but never gain traction. It’s really reserved but it’s got a heart and emotional resonance in its tentative steps that far outstrip any of the other tracks, hovering on this sad and lonely precipice, letting nature and the night sweep it up.

It’s hard to pick any one aspect of this that makes the record weak in particular, it just feels to me like lots of little things, little inclusions and textural facets are missing to give the album a more rounded feel; it’s possible that the manner in which the tracks were built up between the artists has contributed to this rather disparate and decoherent feel throughout also. You can investigate the album and judge it for yourself with the stream below.