WRITTEN BY STEPHEN HUMPHRIES
To commemorate the 100th release by Tonefloat, a boutique record label based in The Netherlands, several of its mainstay artists collaborated on new recordings. Steven pieced together the “TF100” album, mixed it, and also appears on five of the seven tracks (occasionally playing unconventional instruments).
“All great independent labels are cast in the image of the individuals that run them, and reflect their taste,” says Steven. “That’s very much the case with Tonefloat, which is run by Charles Beterams. There are no boundaries and he doesn’t get stuck in a particular genre. For example he has recently put out a triple album of obscure Dutch 1980s heavy metal.”
“TF100” unites the considerable talents of Moonswift, Dirk Serries, Sand Snowman, Theo Travis, Peter van Vliet, Maarten van der Vleuten, and Steven. The musicians collaborated in various configurations, usually by swapping files online. That the album hangs together as a cohesive listen is a testament to the overarching sensibility of Charles’ taste. The music shares an organic, almost analog feel, and it seems to exist in an altered state.
“It is a great introduction to the sound and aesthetics of the label, except that you won’t find any Dutch heavy-metal on this one!” laughs Steven. “But there’s everything else: ambient music, singer-songwriter material, folk, psychedelia.”
The opening track, “Like Charcoal”, casts a spell that remains unbroken over the course of its nine minutes. Against the backdrop of shivering guitar textures and low murmurs of flute, Steven slowly laments, “I’m in here/in care abandoned/still in here/the body breakdown/the body useless.” His solitude sounds as crippling and hopeless as that of a long-abandoned miner.
“Theo Travis created some textures, Sand added some guitar, and then they sent it to me and I basically improvised the vocal. I wasn’t singing in patterns or singing to a rhythm or a structure, I improvised the way that a jazz flautist or jazz saxophonist would improvise lines. I’ve taken this approach a few times creating words and vocal lines in a stream of consciousness. I wasn’t necessarily trying to infuse the song with any great meaning, but just using the sound of the words in a very painterly, abstract way.”
It was Steven who brought Sand Snowman into the Tonefloat fold. He came across a review that compared the mysteriously monikered musician’s acoustic-based music to the acid folk of Comus and “The Wicker Man” soundtrack. Curious, Steven purchased several CDRs that had been released by an underground label called Reverb Worship.
“As soon as I heard them, I thought it was insane that this music was only reaching a handful of people. Straightaway, I contacted Charles and I said, ‘You need to put these records out on vinyl. This guy needs to reach a bigger audience’.”
On “Pale Ghostlike Friend”, Steven, Sand and Peter van Vliet create a folk song that should appeal to fans of Storm Corrosion. Steven sings dreamy lead and backing vocals over an upbeat acoustic tapestry. The mood of the piece begins to change as it expands to include Mellotron, glockenspiel, harmonium and theremin. By the end, its bright tones have been completely eclipsed by musical shadows.
“Sand plays wiry acoustic guitar but processes it with analog pedals,” says Steven. “He creates a maelstrom of sound with his guitar like a banshee wail at the end of the track.”
“TF100” boasts a variety of rich contrasts. The Moonswift, Serries, van Vliet, and Wilson collaboration “California Falling” sounds like a shoegaze version of The Mamas and the Papas. Serries and van der Vleuten offer a beautiful piece titled “Murmlefish”, in which a distorted male voice moves in-and-out of sync with splashes of percussion and vibrating strings. On “Trevail”, Steven plays electric guitar with a Peter Green-like tone and the sort of articulate phrasing that he brought to Porcupine Tree’s “The Oceans Have No Memory”. Halfway through the instrumental, Theo’s looping flights of clarinet sound as elated as a bird during the first day of spring.
The album highlight may just be “Song for John Fahey”, an 11 minute instrumental by Sand and Steven. It’s a majestic and hypnotic piece in which Sand’s acoustic guitar, with its wide string bends, has an Americana feel to it, which is indeed reminiscent of the late, great guitarist John Fahey. Steven added resonant ripples of autoharp and also arthritic trembles of violin.
“I can’t play violin at all, but I brought one for about 25 quid,” says Steven. “I was just bowing notes and creating textures by playing it like an idiot. I’m a great believer that if you’re a musician, you can get good sound out of anything. I’ve adopted that approach with many things over the years, whether it was the zither, the banjo, the violin. It’s just a matter of harnessing the sound in the context of something you’ve created. I was basically doing what Genesis P–Orridge did in Throbbing Gristle, just scraping the bow across the strings—that sound that every parent who has a kid learning to play the violin dreads! But, in the context of the texture of this music, it seemed to work.”
“TF100” has a 43 minute running time, but it feels doubly as long. It’s transportive music that offers listeners a tantalizing gateway into the predominantly vinyl world of Tonefloat.