Matthew Barlow






There was a time when Asheville, North Carolina-based guitarist and sound artist Matthew Barlow was not the proud runner of the Twin Springs Tapes label, but even back then he was still more than able to create a delightful sound experience whose intrinsic qualities matched the hand-made exteriors. I have wanted to review the thirty-minute two-part adventure called Product for a long time, and now is as good an opportunity as any to confess to my obsession. Released in March 2013 on Bandcamp in a limited run of C30 tapes that have sold out a long time ago, Product displays a remarkably rewarding New Age/Drone synergy, but so do many other tapes. What, then, is so special about its aesthetics? It is the way Matthew Barlow interweaves a field recording taken in a local grocery market. Or to be precise: this field recording is not woven into the soundscape, it is the soundscape. And to be even more precise: it is stretched and augmented in such ways that there is nothing recognizable in it anymore. There are no beeps when the cashier prints the sales slip, no grizzling children screaming for chocolate bars, no clangorous bottles in the basket: the whole field recording is adamantly altered, transmuted, glorified. Matthew Barlow neither justifies nor denounces consumerism on this tape. In fact, the artist’s description of the tape leads to the wrong conclusion that this is a depicted moment of a commonplace situation, of modern life in general. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Life is becoming transcendental and shapeless within the boundaries of this tape. Product is an elixir. I have lost my soul to this tape. No big loss, I know. But I do hope that others will find this to be an intriguing release and enter the cryptic caverns.


The black case houses a surprisingly colorful tape. Here they are depicted under sodium light.


Like a saccharified superfluid does Matthew Barlow’s Product (Part I) float along, its nutritious state being more bolstered and thickly wadded as the fade-in phase progresses. Turns out that the mucoid state of the mercilessly elasticized field recording-based synth patch is not necessarily all that liquid; the stacked undertones form a reticulation that is more akin to a circulation pump’s thermal heat than a calorific milkshake, but regardless of the truth™ or an approximation thereof, Part I evokes both a fluxion and airflow at the same time. Coated in a granuloma of mystical bass drones, moments of New Age mystique and the recurrent upsurge of benign euphony, the undulation is more often than not graced by oneiric quandaries: dark and mystified, with histrionic hisses and prolonged wisps amid the clandestine cannelure on the one hand does Part I find its way back to moments of effulgence and – completely non-existent – accidental cherubim choirs whose synthetic commentariat are but one acatalepsy in the greater picture on the other hand. The argentine fizzles are whitewashed, omnipresent yet distant due to their mellowed balminess, covering the interstices of nullity when the faux-synths are quieter than usual. Resembling otherworldly cyber whale songs from another dimension, Part I’s latter complexion comprises of more pressing wind gusts and serpentined specters whose helicoidal physiognomy floats through the ethereal shopping mall. There is a limit to everything, and the interim endpoint of the tape reminds of this adage with an increasingly blowing radiator fan which fades out before the reel comes to a halt.


Product (Part II) is based on the very same premise and promise, enforcing its freely diffusing and mightily somnolent qualities in the same way as Part I was able to. However, Part II is neither an appendix nor a hasty afterthought, but simply the strikingly compatible foil to Part I. No surprise, since these parts actually belong together and are only divided out of necessity due to the physical limitation of a C30 tape. What I have written in regard to the first part is still applicable here. Part II, however, launches with multiplexed air currents that are the aftermath to side A’s drafty final stage. And granted, there is enigmatic wind in here as well. The interplay and interdependency between these mildly industrial sinews and the choir-evoking incandescence is still gorgeously maintained and nurtured. These counterparts are never perceived as such, nor are they sternly enforced. Matthew Barlow allows these movements all the time they need, and even quieter passages find their way to Part II. It is here that the supermarket truly feels like a figment. It is like the ritualistic cleansing of a temple, and indeed, this very thought is not that far away from the truth. Once the more melodious – relatively speaking – formations begin to appear, their stacked glow emanates dark depth and pristine purity. Even though Product is no progressive piece with a scaled development, the Asheville-based artist does present a definite and well-placed finale, notwithstanding the fact that much of this tape happened only by chance. Anyway, the preeminent texture Barlow is showcasing and putting into the limelight is an opalescently piercing polar light which towers above the darkness, leaving behind the murky mélange of twilight by increasing the chromaticity. And there’s the key difference: in grocery stores, the lights go dim and out when visitors shall leave. In posh clubs and dance clubs, lights go on, blinding nihilists and optimits alike. Product is based on the former tactics but uses the trick of the latter establishments. Remarkably polyfaceted!


How can darkness be luminescent? This is the question that turns up time and again. Synesthetes have a field day in this regard, but the adaptation of this concept to all sorts of aesthetic goods remains problematic, even if one leaves out all scientific facts (which I do, duh). So in order to answer the question how Matthew Barlow’s darkly simmering Product can be so wondrously light and amicable while still retaining its withdrawal and remoteness only to then embrace and surround the listener in a sanctuary of processed languor, one needs to look at the core of this tape. And this opens many an inner eye: that the base – the sole base – of this sparkler is realized by a field recording in a supermarket is beyond belief, and if Asheville’s sound designer did not freely admit (to) it, I would not have the slightest idea of what this album is about or how it has come to exist. I still do not know how the long-form segues were created in particular, but Mr. Barlow comes to the rescue again by showing the tricks and procedures he used to make it all work in an enlightening video tutorial on YouTube. All technology-related prowess and descriptive background information aside, Product works fantastically well in isolated form. I have listened to it multitudinous times, it is a regular companion during desk-related tasks, it leaves an everlasting impression no matter how often it is approached by me. It is cavernous, an antrum of bliss, but also of depth and arcana. New Age-like and Drone-oriented, with only un soupçon d’industrie alimentaire, Product is never danger-evoking or portentous despite its long moments of opaqueness. The tape has unfortunately sold out long ago, the Product has quite literally become unavailable, but its digital incarnation shines on – albeit in the ultraviolet spectrum – on Bandcamp.


Further listening and reading: 


Ambient Review 339: Matthew Barlow – Product (2013). Originally published on May 7, 2014 at