It soon becomes clear that the focus of the work is not on acheiving any particular musical moment, but on the ephemerality of sonic transformation itself. Unlike compositions that utilize radio in part for its referential or signifying qualities, SWR is more in the minimalist tradition of relying on the primacy of the material itself. The work is a celebration of the radio as material and of the belief that minutiae and limited systems can yield rich results. But it is also a celebration of the rich, ragged, unstable thickness of analog sound in a world anesthetized by the crisp and clean precision of digital audio.
— Lou Mallozzi, P-Form Magazine
Nagual documents a 2004 live performance in Hartford, Connecticut where the shortwave radio manipulations of longstanding collaborators Todd Merrell and Patrick Jordan were joined by Aidan Baker's guitar, melding smoothly to create several lengthy tracks of austere but optimistic drone.
Instead of the rapid wow and flutter and twitchy bursts of speech often teased from shortwave radios, Merrell and Jordan work in more abstract terms, processing the signal into distant electromagnetic roaring and slowly drifting whistles. Merrell's 2006 album Neptune featured tracks inspired by the planet's huge, frozen moons and there's a similar sense of the sublime evoked here. Like optical illusions which exploit the brain's perception of negative space, Nagual suggests being confronted with something too large and mysterious to be resolved into either cavernous space or supermassive presence. This is especially noticeable on the first track, "Undertow", which starts from a muffled loop like thunder heard from the ocean bed before moving with a graceful but unstoppable tidal power through a variety of slowly pulsating phrases.
Avoiding the danger of dominating the trio, Baker's guitar stays mellow and subtle, restraining melodic input to loops of clean, rippling tones. "Diomedea" sets up a gentle sea-saw of octaves which are gradually subsumed by Merrell and Jordan's drifts of indecipherable chatter and harsh solar winds. "Cygnus" may feature a more active, undulating guitar line, but only as a foil to his companions' invasive, ringing frequencies, reflecting the level of sympathy and vision in this collaboration.
— Abi Bliss, The Wire, February, 2008
The beautiful photographs — a forest and an amass of superb clouds — that adorn the cover of Nagual give only a faint idea of its musical content. Looking at the instrumentation (shortwave radio, guitars, electronics, processing) and remembering the ambits in which these artists have worked, we realize in advance that an experience of altered perception will be likely met. The four tracks — recorded live in Hartford, Connecticut in 2004 — are presented as a single unit, a 60-minute suite that easily reaches the highest positions in my personal space/ambient rank of the last five years. The feel of proximity given by the ethereal qualities of Bakers loops, the otherworldly voices and the modified emissions coming from Merrell and Jordan's radios generate a state of perennial floating that, for a change, doesnt sound like refined new age. Depths similar to the ones reached by the best Lustmord are observed, segments of gentle guitar arpeggios and powerful tempests of indefinite aural matter representing a stimulation for the being to remain awake, all the more in those moments when the tiredness of living amidst stupidity starts knocking at the door of our mind. The beginning of Cygnus is just memorable in its simplicity, a graceful line repeated over and over by Baker upon a fairly static background whose sonic appearance resembles a cross between the slow breathing of a whale and an aircraft taking off, before wailing moans by bionic mermaids define the evolution of the piece towards completion. If this cynical grumbler liked this one so much, then lovers of the genre should consider Nagual a must.
— Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes, February, 2008
Not sure who Todd Merrell or Patrick Jordan are, but we sure as heck are familiar with the third part of this drone trio, the Baker in question is none other than Mr. Aidan Baker, he of Nadja, Arc, and a million or so releases under his own name.
This live set finds Baker handling guitar duties, but you'd never know it from the sound, augmented by short wave radios, electronics, and various bits of processing, the sound here is deep and dark, a crumbling and epic expanse of rumbling shimmering low end. Roiling clouds of murky melodic fragments, distant swells, throbbing low end pulses, barely audible bits of static and washed out glitch. Very cinematic, if you were watching a film that was almost entirely dark, with just barely visible shifts in the various shades of black and grey. Lovely though, minimal and haunting. Think Coleclough, Chalk, Lustmord, that sort of ambient darkness.
But the second track is an entirely different beast. Simple guitar strums, minimal melodies, the strings struck softly, the metallic buzz and clang ringing out into the ether, some sort of underwater slow motion Fahey, smeared and soft and dark and dreamy. The final half of the track, the guitar disappears completely, leaving streaks of feedback that sound like the cries of gulls, grinding slow motion slabs of shifting low end, whirling windlike whirs, almost like a manufactured nature recording.
The guitar returns for the third track, drifting gently, while the background noise builds into a slow motion wash of sound, the track culminating in a cloud of chimes and reverbed percussion, seasick swirls and struck steel strings, before slipping languidly into the final track, a lugubrious underwater crawl, all of the sounds muddy and indistinct, a sonar like ping buried way down in the mix, underneath it all a thick blanket of constant whirring drones, quite lovely.
Packaged in one of those cool, 6 panel, gatefold aRCHIVE sleeves, glossy paper, super striking image of forest and clouds, LIMITED TO 600 COPIES!!
— Aquarius Records
[CA/US] collaboration between Aidan Baker, Todd Merrell and Patrick Jordan. stunning drony landscapes. one of my favorite release this year! recommanded!
— Salvation Records
Taken from a live recording in 2004, Nagual features three artists known for their individual work — Todd Merrell on electronics, Aidan Baker on guitar and Patrick Jordan on 'processing,' with Jordan and Merrell also working shortwave radio — in an enjoyable collaboration. As is always the case with improvisation, the performance runs a risk of simply being indulgent rather than truly memorable, but in its understated fashion the four pieces featured here show that the three performers are able to combine forces well. The overall feeling is unsurprisingly one of sheer meditative chill, often being the kind of dark, reflective electronic pieces that call to mind everyone from Mick Harris to Robert Rich at the latter's most moody, with Baker's guitar work providing anchoring undertones and shades to the slightly stern mood conjured up by Merrell and Jordan. The opening "Undertow" is well named as a result, suggesting a dark pull downward throughout in its slowly rising flow of sound and echo. This said, not all is gloom by any means — "Diomedea" is much more enclosed and cocoonlike, with Baker's guitar parts being gentle additions to a carefully building wash of warm sound that understatedly rhythmic as well as softly calming, a fine contrast to its concluding section where colder sonic winds sound like they're coming down from outer space. "Cygnus" blends these two impulses more carefully, Baker's soft melody providing a steady core for a series of interwoven drones that almost glow with lambent energy, serene and uplifting. [3.5 stars]
— Ned Raggett, All Music Guide
Like Tod Dockstader, Connecticut-based Todd Merrell is a sound explorer who has been processing radio frequencies and spectral communications from shortwave radios and transforming them into soundscapes since 1978. Neptune was recorded in real time with no overdubs and no post-production in two-track, direct to DAT with Merrell using only a single band shortwave receiver, a loop sampler, delay and reverb effects processor and mixer. Each of the eight tracks are devoted to one of Neptune's 13 moons (the five most recently discovered have yet to be named). While the eighth planet from the Sun is one of the gaseous planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus), whose composition is made up of ice, rock, helium and hydrogen, and whose winds reach up to 200 kms/hr, astronomers know little about these moons. This leaves the door wide open for Merrell to imagine what the sounds on and surrounding these moons would be. Too often when the solar system is evoked in music, it is often depicted in quasi-mystical terms with the music falling into cliched psychedelia. Merrell avoids this pitfall and wisely assumes that the moons have some of the same characteristics of their parent planet. So that while Merrell's immersive drone-based soundscapes are definitely celestial, they are equally forbidding; gaseous in shape with a temperature that is glacially cold and an omnisciently thick, turbulent, distant roar, something like being trapped in one of Neptune's howling wind storms. Sometimes this ghostly audio manifests as a massive, swirling echo chamber as on "Thalassa" and "Larissa" or a gigantic bass tone on "Galatea" or more benignly as on the piercing, ringing loops of "Naiad" and "Despina". Only "Proteus" and "Nereid" break from the template, the former dominated by a granular buzzing static that comes close to Francisco Lopez's abrasive fissures of sound, the latter employing the microtonal static as a broken rhythm to the companion staccato overtones, as if the Raster-Noton camp had decided to embrace the dark ambience of Robert Rich. Of course, if your source material is radiophonic transmissions, you're bound to tune into some human voices and on "Neptune" they come in two forms, either as barely perceptible echoing voices struggling to be heard amidst the murky waveforms on "Thalassa" or as a washed out angelic choir that forms the basis for "Triton". This, despite the fact, that humanity's first up close contact with Neptune was through the photos relayed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989. Neptune is a compelling and occasionally harrowing celebration of this distant blue-colored orb.
— Richard Moule, Signal To Noise, Winter, 2007
As befitting an album named after a distant planet and with its individual tracks named after said planet's moons, Neptune begins with a dark, evocative chill very much in keeping with many of the best practitioners of the danker side of ambience — this isn't so much a healing wash of sound as a sense of desolate, empty landscapes under a coal-black sky. But "Naiad" isn't the album in miniature, as Todd Merrell explores various shades of murk and disorienting gloom throughout the album. Rather than being entirely calm to the point of death, activity crops up in careful ways — the seemingly random, heavily echoed blips and burps on "Galatea" set against the absolute zero of the background wash, the slow, steady rhythm of "Triton," feeling like an endless, regular but syncopated pulse through gauze. Some pieces definitely have the feeling of alien broadcasts — consider the distorted, bubbling flow of what sounds like language of some form or another on "Thalassa," rising out of infinite depths (all the more appropriate given the nautical imagery applied to the planet and its moons). The concluding "Nereid" provides a fine counterbalance to the opening "Naiad," sounding even more like a Thomas Koner piece lost somewhere in the outer cosmos — further living up to the inspiration for the album as a whole. [3.5 stars]
— Ned Raggett, All Music Guide
Admittedly, there are more than a handful of things about this recording that emit new-agey warning signals. The cover kinda screams ECM, 1978, the title along with the track names (eight of Neptunes moons) and, on a superficial level, even the music. But at least that last bit is misleading. Merrell sources short-wave emissions from the electro-magnetosphere, makes minimal adjustments or enhancements, mostly involving loops and reverb, and presents the results as thick, sometimes smooth, sometimes gnarly slabs of hum n static. If, after all is said and done, it tends more toward the tonally agreeable and if the reverb is ladled on a tad heavily for my taste, I can see the music having wide appeal for people who enjoy (for example) Pauline Oliveros drone work or the long string music of Ellen Fullman.
Merrell has also worked with Francisco Lopez and you can hear a certain affinity, particularly if you pump up the volume a few notches. In some pieces, such as Larissa, you get toward a similar cavernous massiveness of sonic space; Lopez may seek to place you inside a jet engine but Merrell wants to situate you directly in line with a solar flare. A track like this comes closest to abandoning any traditional musical elements and is most successful, to these ears, as a pure, heady chunk of sonics. One can easily imagine, given a strong enough sound system, how immersive this music could be in live performance. The following cut, Proteus, takes things a step further by injecting some rude splats of static into the mix, creating an even grainier, less cloying stew. Nereid, the final piece here, breaks formation with the others, initially discarding the drone-wash and utilizing a series of semi-regular pulses, dusted with static and navigating between sine-like tones at various aural distances though eventually it too settles into the ether. Its an intriguing tack, recalling (of all things) recordings like Hancock's Sextant, pared and reduced but retaining a vestige of funk.
As mentioned above, Neptune is likely to be right up the alley for those already attuned with Oliveros and associated musicians, less so for the noisier inclined.
— Brian Olewnick, Bagatellen, August, 2006
Shortwave radio sounds have been attractive to electronic music composers since John Cage twiddled the dials for his Imaginary Landscapes and Karlheinz Stockhausen sought alien communication in the music of the spheres. More recently, John Duncan has used shortwave sounds extensively in his recent experimental work. The range of sounds that come from the deep unknown connects musicians with something larger than themselves, something from Out There (like Mulders Truth). Connecticut composer Todd Merrell has used shortwaves in his work for many years, and his spirit on Neptune is closer to Duncan than Stockhausen, especially to Duncan's more ambient works like Phantom Broadcast.
Neptune is the second album released in the Australian label Dreamland Recordings projected set of nine Planetary Series albums. Each of the eight tracks (corresponding to Neptunes named satellites) was composed in real-time, solo, with no overdubs or post-production. Merrell used only a short wave receiver, a loop sampler, a couple of effects and a mixer. Several tracks are deep ambient drones that wouldnt be out of place on Oophois Umbra label, but on Thalassa and Galatea the voices from the original source transmissions are still in evidence, albeit heavily processed. Proteus is the noisiest piece, with a continuous buzzing underlying the sustained drones. The longest track, Nereid, has a repeating rhythmic ostinato with slow melodic lines over a low-fidelity background noise like tape hiss.
Merrell succeeds in getting a variety of sounds from his material, with each track like a short vignette of messages from deep space. At low volumes, Neptune is suitable for late-night drifting, but there is a lot of detail for headphone listeners.
— Caleb Deupree, Ambient Visions, December, 2006
Taking his inspiration from the isolationist music of Thomas Koner or the more recent works of Biosphere, Merrell crafts a dark, empty space in which nothing seems to live. Like a cold, glacier wind coming out of your speakers, with small events happening, but that never work their way upfront. Everything seems to be happening in a low key mode. Silent and tranquil, but ever so dark that 'new age' isn't a term that even comes closely to this. Great stuff...
— Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly #525
Todd Merrell creates powerful, unsettling ambient sound sculptures using short wave radios.
— Time Out New York
They take shortwave radios and use a variety of effects to transform the signals they pull out of the air into music. But that's like saying Rachmaninoff wrote music for orchestras. Playing at Real Art Ways on Saturday night, they looked like — and sometimes sounded like — spies in a submarine, engineering the next missile crisis. No sooner would a rhythm become familiar than one of them would tear it down with a piercing squawk or an eruption of bass. Baker's chiming guitar offered respite from the storm, multiplying upon itself in minimalist phrases until these, too, were almost too much to bear; he then deftly pulled the plug, letting the listener fall back onto a cushion of ambient white noise. And through it all, echoes of human voices and glimpses of broadcast music wove in and out like tentative reminders that we, indeed, are the stuff their music is made of. Brilliant.
— Hartford Advocate
Todd Merrell is an expert at subtlety. His sounds do not beg for attention, rather they simmer in the background and slowly work their way into the psyche.
— Zac Keiller, Dreamland Recordings
Quite enjoyable detailed obscure spaces in there.
— Francisco Lopez
Merrell and Jordan construct and traverse a fascinating soundscape — choral undulations, mechanical grindings, distant swoops and plunges, waves of white noise. As one vein is exhausted, they find another to mine, moving the piece along at just the right moment and settling momentarily, at just the right place.
— Lou Mallozzi, P-Form Magazine
Thanks to the composers' sensitivity to sonic nuances, they remind us that this old and still ubiquitous technology — this radiophonic nowhere — can be a pleasant place to travel.
— Eric Leonardson, New Art Examiner