The opening moments of Alexander Berne & the Abandoned Orchestra’s Flickers of Mime suffocate the ear, a crush of sustained organ tones overwhelming the space with a mysterious and vaguely threatening assault. The puncture of a drum roll lets some air into the room, but the off-kilter trajectory doesn’t abate. It’s a disorienting plunge into dreamscape (or perhaps nightmare), tangled in swirls of soprano saxophone.
For indeed, the path through this 11-movement work—paired here in a 2-CD set with Berne’s equally fascinating Death of Memes—weaves in its course. Beginning with an ambient base layer of sound out of which distinct sonic events emerge and retreat, Berne creates the sensation that we are watching the landscape of a foreign country through the window of a moving vehicle, the sights only half glimpsed and even less concretely understood. The vaguely Arabic timbre to elements of the tracks—particularly noticeable in the woodwinds (which include a saduk, a very cool sounding Berne-built invention), though present in the strings and percussion as well—add to this exotic imagery. For as visually evocative as the music feels to the mind’s eye, however, the only truly navigable handrail available is by ear, of course, offering endless opportunities to hit delete on conjured images and begin the journey again.
As the work develops, it seems roused from its Nyquil haze, instrumental lines taking up more firmly pronounced physical residence in the aural space as the tracks progress. This is especially striking in the immersive “Flicker VII”, the placement and volume levels of the various instruments in the mix building an almost tangible structure around the listener.
If Flickers of Mime took the ear on a sonic safari, Death of Memes ships it off to Battlestar Galactica. The romance and anguish in Berne’s woodwind writing remain, but “Meme I” finds them singing in a metallic cage of percussion and marching drum beats. From there, however, the tenor of the following eight tracks turn away from the foreign odyssey that Mime suggested to concentrate on a meditative, inward-looking space. Though the overall vibe develops a more aggressive and ominous character as the work moves toward its conclusion, it maintains a certain atmosphere of introspective solitude.
On a closing note, though you perhaps shouldn’t judge a CD by its cover, it’s certainly fair to give props for a particularly excellent one, and Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes‘s hardback book-style packaging with its silver-inked text and cover art (design and layout by Shelter Bookworks/drawings by Karolien Soete) definitely puts a well-earned gloss on an exciting project.