Album Review: Giant Claw – Mirror Guide

By Kiah Easton, Editorial Director
[Orange Milk; 2021]
Rating: *_??//@@#$*&/10

Key tracks: “Earther”, “Disworld (Vocals: NTsKI)”, “Mirror Guide, Pt. II (you and me)”

Published by am spritzer and ACRN Media

Experimental electronic music often finds itself positioned opposite to the idea of organic sound. While electronic production has allowed for the abstraction of “traditional” sounds, it has also granted composers access to a wider array of tools, allowing for the simulation, mimicry, and expansion of these past sounds, recontextualizing what is thought of as natural. Keith Rankin, co-founder of Orange Milk Records, prolific visual artists, and musician under the name Giant Claw, explores the constructed space between organic and inorganic in his most recent record, Mirror Guide, breaking down the false dichotomy in order to invent entirely new sonic environments for listeners to experience.

The exploration of organic sound is accomplished in several ways on Mirror Guide. A central leitmotif throughout the project is seen in a rhythm loosely based on the idea of the Fibonacci sequence. Imagine a bouncy ball being dropped on a piano, rising exponentially less each time, causing the notes to speed up and blur together into a body of movement rather than independent notes. The first track on “Mirror Guide” displays this idea immediately. Keith, during a chat with am spritzer, mentioned naturally being drawn to this movement. “I just felt like my hands were naturally doing that a bunch, without even knowing it. Even on Soft Channel. Anytime I would be off the grid, my hands were naturally drawn to that.”

This concept manifests itself in melodic and percussive moments throughout the project, providing a sense of movement that, at times, feels timid and explorative but also panicked and angry at others. Theoretically based on naturally occurring mathematical sequences, this rhythm reinforces the organic/digital fusion conceptually. With a combination of this theme and the exceptional level of sound design and world building, Mirror Guide carries the listener through a texturally and emotionally rich world while also upholding an impressive level of cohesion and atmosphere. Juxtaposing elements of familiar sounds with inventive foreignity creates an experience akin to the uncanny valley, a liminal space between two constructed ideas.

The opening track, “Earther”, leaves the void of silence behind gently. Pizzicato strings bounce into your field of perception, starting slowly but increasing in speed and volume exponentially with each pluck. Intimate and sensitive, the melodies feel raw and vulnerable, portraying some unadulterated moment of beauty. Fleeting, the softness found within the strings is punctured by sharp, airy bursts of sound. Falling in and out of melodic grace, the MIDI dances alongside sounds of digitally mangled cacophony.  “Earther” embodies all that an opening track should be, holding the listener’s hand as you take the first step through the door to a new auditory environment. Establishing a contextual basis for the experience to follow, “Earther” is the guide in Mirror Guide encouraging you to step forth into the expanse.

What defines organic sound? The world of experimental electronic music of today often asks this question, but Mirror Guide displays one of the most elegant explorations. “Synthetic things like plastic, or the microchips in a computer, are no less organic than something made of wood. They’re still made out of organic matter,” says Keith. The constructed dichotomy between sound made digitally and sound that is *primarily* made “organically” (mostly outside of a computer) creates an unnecessary separation within the way the music is perceived and conceptualized. Rather than a departure from music of the past, the tools that Giant Claw and other electronic producers use to create their compositions are merely an evolution of organic sound, an “extension of human thought.” Mirror Guide was made electronically but incorporates elements of classical-sounding instruments, dancing around the perception of each sound used. This helps to blur this line, creating something fresh and unique.

Beyond an increase in accessibility and opportunity, tools within the electronic production sphere also can work to augment the creative process, providing an interesting translation of human creativity. On the track “Mir-Cam Startup”, a section of horns croon across an expansive, wispy landscape. Keith explained how he created this sound in our Zoom call and in a breakdown of their song “Mir-Cam Online”, available on YouTube. Taking the original horn composition they played on a keyboard, the AI assisted-program Tone Transfer deconstructed the sound and remodeled, warping the sound into something new. Later in the track, Keith also temporarily experimented with using the sound of the human voice fed through the AI program, translating the sound into the timbral qualities of a horn. Technology, more and more, allows for the collaboration between human and digital creativity, birthing sounds and ideas inaccessible without. 

Individual songs on Mirror Guide, and the project as a whole, contain a certain fluidity and sense of movement to them: tentative at points, shifting rapidly into bursts of aggression, trading back and forth between moments of extreme intimacy and epic cinematic Transformer™-esque sound design. “Disworld (vocals: NTsKI)” starts with vocals from the artists NTsKI, breathy and intimate, as if they surround you from all sides whispering loudly in your ear. Reinforced loosely by a skeletal melody, in a moment the instrumentation bursts into a screaming metallic extension of the strings that were previously alone. Morphing into a rolling, slithering layer of string plucks, an orchestra softly holds up the rest of the sounds. Rising to a melodic and emotional peak, the beautifully cohesive selection of sounds disassemble themselves, crashing into intricately percussive layers of noise and creating a level of emotional tension analogous to a human scream. Within a few seconds, the cacophony flashes out of existence, replaced once more with an orchestra of delicate strings and synthetic wind instruments, bringing the listener down gently but sporadically, like a leaf spinning as it falls from a tree. 

The progression of “Disworld (vocals: NTsKI)” embodies much of the stream of consciousness nature of Mirror Guide, channeling the feeling that the composition just flowed naturally into existence, unobstructed by the translation of an idea. However, in reality, these sounds did not just appear without effort. “I like tinkering with stuff for a long time. I will generate a bunch of ideas and then have to go back and just force myself to bring out the idea. Sometimes, it’s legit painful, but I think if the first sketch feels good enough, then it’s worth finishing,” says Keith. On the receiving end, more so than the creative, Mirror Guide transmits a tangible sense of freedom. Each element feels meticulously crafted in concert and is a product of transitory moments and feelings. It’s as if the sounds just came to exist within the space rather than being workshopped extensively.

Mirror Guide works as an album with elegance. Each song shares an emotional and sonic connection to the next. Coming together as a whole, the sounds build a collection of moments that, in themselves, feel timeless. When consumed front to back, Rankin has constructed a  journey that takes the listener through a beautifully dynamic experience of exploration and discovery. In a nonlinear sense, on the other hand, Mirror Guide, like many of Giant Claw’s past projects, leaves listeners with a vast arrangement of complex sonic moments that remain interesting on their own, even after repeated consumption. Like an infinitely complex piece of machinery disassembled in front of you, each piece is intricate and shiny but also comes together to create something functional and expansive. 

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