The Premise: Welcome To Pacifica
The first recorded release of veteran guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Cooper is the four-track EP Out Of The Shades in 1965, and if you are willed to fast-forward 50 years in one introductory sentence only, you not only realize the most impressive anniversary taking place, but a sound-based outfit that is so unlike the pompous occasion due to its magnificent dreaminess, lilting circulation and tidal boundaries that it could be seen as an understatement, were it not for the craftsmanship of uniting auroral Ambient with left-field Exotica: enter Fratello Mare, Mike Cooper’s eleven-track cyano-epitome released at the end of July 2015 on Lawrence English’s Room40 label. Available to purchase on vinyl (a strictly limited colored and not as limited black edition) and digitally at the Room40 Webshop, the UK-born, Italy-based artist comes up with an album whose name is inspired by Folco Quilici’s eponymous 1975 documentary, but overcomes the cinematographic existence via the power of lap steel chords, gamelan bells, vibes, field recordings and carefully processed frequency ranges. The result is always dreamy and much more focused on the atmosphere and focal point than Cooper’s Arthur Lyman-inspired ode Rayon Hula (2004). The Pacific is always nearby, and beaches, underbrushes and coppices allow for a freshness that is itself purified. Here is a closer look at its principal tropical constituents and the allure it establishes with every sustained note.
Whatever you hear on Fratello Mare, whichever stratified segment is in the center: the ambience plays an ever-important part in Mike Cooper’s album, it ennobles the fibrous entities, drenches them in salubrious liquids, revs up the plasticity and – most importantly – makes the paradisiac notion absorbable even to those listeners who otherwise shy away from the Exotica alloy, what with its flamboyant flares and strong stereotypes of Hawaiiana and escapism. Whether it is the in medias res beginning of A House In Bali whose vitreous-tawny chimes and bells are enclosed in a quasi-nocturnal breeding ground for crickets and squawky birds of paradise, the similarly glistening fauna-accentuated scenery in Of Palm And Reef which ameliorates the distant guitars and seemingly improvised faux tryouts or the pectiniform wideness of Secret Mexican Beach with its gurgling rivulets, bottleneck gusts and plumed chirps, it always turns out that Fratello Mare is a three-dimensional diorama, a stage for the sounds and adjuvants to illumine and shine, with the instrumental base frame sometimes providing only the inferior, secondary context.
Steel Guitars And Bosky Drums In My Mind
Make no mistake though: the innermost amniotic nucleus of Mike Cooper’s album is and remains the assortment of guitars and, to an even greater extent, the tamed tribal titration of drums and other rhythmic devices. Never threatening nor impulsive, these rotoscoping pulses and ligneous fermions amend the otherwise beatless patterns and provide an entwined placenta to hold on to. Street Beneath The Beach is sure enough in the epicenter of it all, a saffron-colored ancillary route leading to a willfully retrogressive viewpoint of the former Orient, what with the pulsatile gourd drums and ophidian snake charmer twangs on the guitar, the latter of which somehow saccharify the discordance with polyphonous bursts and sporophytes. Then there is Notes From My Pacific Log which places the trippy steel guitar lozenges into the distance… in tandem with the classic drum kit. What you get is a selection of layers that are all rather laid-back and situated in the hindmost areas. And finally, the endpoint Complicated Sky is the bamboo-driven woodpecker serenade where amethystine violins swirl in a flickering fog of alkaliphilic plasma, ignited by a hypnotic cathexis of the wooden drums. There are Ambient songs on Fratello Mare where the drums are amiss, but once they appear, aural hydromagnesite and helictites ensue.
Fratello Mare is an electro-acoustic album alright. You have heard that description before, and ever since. It obviously describes an album’s handmade headstone or foundation shimmering through a reticulation of purposefully artificial or even apocryphal wizardry on the synths and amplifiers. I’m not specifically in the know, but I sense that Mike Cooper is more fond of recording his tweaked amplifiers which magnanimously unleash and spawn multitudes of magnetotails as well as arrays of aureoles and afterglows. The field recordings tend to appear unprocessed – though maybe cautiously looped – but the guitars and oozing phototropism most certainly do not. The aforementioned closer Complicated Sky takes the cake in this regard when its gamelan bells are clearly audible but at the same time coupled with their sustained, decelerated decay, resulting in a (ga)lactic syncytium. The drowsy afternoon hammock called Summer Without Waves meanwhile pushes its arid boundaries with the hatched ribcages of recondite protrusions which makes for a great dualism when compared to the verglas bells and sun-soaked steel guitar licks. And finally, with no particular song on my mind, there’s the clever complexion of sound, sustain and silence which is established via the aid of echoes, reverb, resonation. The result is curiously enough prone to sound cavernous, hollow or like a wasteland, for echoes make the listener aware of the omnipresent emptiness. But with all the birds, waves, rivulets and sylvan constituents residing in the tropical zone as well? No chance of feeling lonely!
The Aftermath: Cyan Coruscation
Call it viridian, glaucous, cerulean, turquoise or, well, cyan: Fratello Mare unfurls the sentiment of this blue-greenish gamut throughout its runtime and in every track. There is something paradisiacal about its composition and consistency, and granted, a few of its fibroblasts and strata have been summarized above. The result of this meticulous process remains congruent and cohesive as well. Even when the multi-instrumentalist branches out and neglects the recognizable presence of his steel-stringed signature instrument, Fratello Mare remains exotic, probably even more so, as it overcomes the danger of being perceived as tacky, cheesy, antediluvian. The steel guitar, as we are painfully aware of when we only take the slightest glimpse at the local Exotica Review Archive, makes and breaks Hapa Haole or Hawaiian music records as well as the technicolor-boosted Saturday morning cartoon of one’s choice. Mr. Cooper is aware, and he cares. With cleverly bent frequencies, a multiplex of field recordings and processing methods, be they live or done in post, Fratello Mare unites the Golden Age of Exotica music with the timeless present. Many like-minded projects fail to capture the hearts of Exotica fans due to the overabundance of effects, styles and genres. Here, however, we don’t have a zoetropic work whose elements spread like wildfire: everything is instead carefully channelled, resulting in a cannelure of sensorial apprehension, volatile flaring and immersive microlensing. This is one strong tropical thiazide.
Further listening and reading:
Exotica Review 444: Mike Cooper – Fratello Mare (2015). Originally published on Aug. 1, 2015 at AmbientExotica.com.