about the author

Daniel Mahoney’s imaginary music reviews have appeared in many places: Spork, Paper Darts, The Fiddleback, Hobart (web), Four and Twenty, and Meat For Tea. He is a contributing editor at Bateau. He lives in Maine. There are no tacos there.

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Location! Location! Location!

Daniel Mahoney

Artist: Umbral
Album: Predawn Demo Tapes
Label: K Records

When I was living on the beach in Nice, life was as simple as opening a box. I thought, eat. Drink, I thought. Sleep. It was a needed change from hustling work one fruit-picking season at a time that summer in Europe. Nice was nice, a home filled with travelers and other refugees from the greyfaced work a day world. I was there about two weeks when this young girl shows up with a cello. An entire cello! She was fresh and beautiful, Latvian, a runaway or an orphan from the wars. She stood at our edge asking admittance. We welcomed her, gave her what we had: bread and fruit, liters of Charvaunx in clear plastic bottles. She didn’t say much, just spent the day looking at the sea and smiling. Nicola sewed colorful strings into her long blond hair. The Swede gave her one of his expressionist drawings. He asked her if she could play something on the cello, she smiled and nodded her head. When she pulled the bow across the strings it was like nothing I had heard before, low guttural rasps, hinge-shriek behind the flange factory, then a slurry of other voices I thought were impossible for a cello to mimic: an arrhythmic vacuumsound, coffeemaker finger patter, blasts of airplane engine extreme. Her body ricocheted from sound to sound, stone to stone. In white gauze top and pink flip-flops, she exorcised daemonic marginsounds while the well healed walked the promenade, breathing in the soup and slew and slaughter. She didn’t know how to play music, she knew how to play something else, and kept at it through the sunset sitting on a salvaged metal folding chair, her body swaying, limp and sweaty then rigid, spastic, drowning in the mouth of the Mediterranean. It was full and awful and everywhere. Then it stopped. We applauded not knowing what else to do. She put the cello back into its hard black shell and snapped it shut. Night grew colder, we covered the Latvian with what we could spare, then burrowed into the smooth beach stones like larvae. In the morning she and the cello were gone. The Swede was disconsolate. He sat on the chair, turned in circles, looked over his shoulder. At dusk he walked the streets listening for a sound. It went on like this. Music can rip a man open, force him to become more than a collection of habits. Music can root a man to Yakima, Lima, Ghat. It rooted the Swede to Nice. A friend once gave me a homemade CD-R wrapped in brown paper and packaging tape. It was well worn with faint drawings of squid and astral charts, an old e-mail address, a recipe for porridge. She said it was by Umbral before they became huge. Said she had seen them as an informal underground psychdrone collective in Berlin. Said now she could never move from Berlin. Said she even stopped trying. I gave it a listen while walking New York at night. It was like walking a half-erased creation where streets were streets only by walking them and what was never walked on, never was to be. I made it out but two hours of me walks there still. This new Umbral album, Predawn Demo Tapes, is really an old Umbral album cleaned up for larger public consumption. It’s a collection of early recordings and hard to find B-sides. The album is authentic in its approach, including the rough mixes of all eight tracks found on that original CD-R. If you have never heard Umbral, then begin with Frequency Thirteen and work your way back to Predawn. If you have heard Umbral and have never heard the early stuff, you have never heard Umbral. If you have heard the early stuff but have never heard the pre-early stuff then stop pretending you know Umbral, because you don’t. Packaged in a gorgeous hardcover book-style sleeve, Predawn Demo Tapes includes a ton of liner notes and old band photos. There is even a photo of the CD-R that sits beside me as I write this review. Essential listening.

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