composition, product

Black Mercury unpacked

Origin Story

Most of my releases coalesce into a conceptual framework within development. While each track remains an island, in a less direct way than Archipelago, the sonic and thematic blueprints start with an audio-visual picture drawn from this article from the New York Times.  In particular the quote from Safi al-Safi:

‘Red mercury has a red color, and there is mercury that has the color of dark blood,’’ he said. ‘‘And there is green mercury, which is used for sexual enhancement, and silver mercury is used for medical purposes. The most expensive type is called Blood of the Slaves, which is the darkest type. Magicians use it to summon jinni.’’

I’m particularly drawn to the idea of an arms dealer weaving folklore into an up-sell for a mythical element, and the application of that element in the generation of an elemental.  At the same time I was spending a lot of time in the sound lab working towards a unique blend of sounds through morphing.  Not something new to my practice at all but something I’ve been focused on as a technique worth further development.  It was during this experimentation that I stumbled across the combination of Air Loom with the System-1m through Zynaptiq Morph 2.  The combination of variable additive partials and subtractive resonance lead to the arcing electrons of “Blood of the Slaves” and established a timbral direction for this release.

Experimentation Period

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Having a specific sonic blueprint required some time experimenting and a fair bit of patience.  I started this process in November 2015 and until April had no completed tracks.  I’ve released a number of other things in that time while this project remained in the background growing slowly.  The extra time was required to experiment with combinations of hardware / software in addition to striving for the particular vibe. Much of the material originated as experimental pieces, recorded with several variations then cut to pieces, resampled and arranged with Push2.  There’s also a lot more melodic and rhythmical material than perhaps usual with my stuff.  This is partly due to the nature of the Push interface making this style of composition much easier…  it’s also something I’ve grown into over the last year.  An appreciation for the sonic complexities and diversities of Musique Concrète alongside the electronic possibilities demonstrated by the likes of Rashad Becker or the last few years of Autechre has pushed me towards grafting something that isn’t content to sit smugly in a corner labelled “Experimental Sound Art”.

Mixing and Processing

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All of the pieces come from an improvised foundation.  Where possible I recorded multiple channels from the MOTU / Push2 setup to the Zoom R16 to be combined and manipulated later in Tracktion 7.   Most wave-shaping and glitch effects were part of the initial Push2 mixing leaving reverb and filtering for post-production.  Most of what I’m doing in T7 is arrangement however – juggling and reconstructing the parts – parallel busses with divergent EQ settings.

Everything ends up going through U-He Presswerk with an -18dB Preset and then a Melda Limiter at 2.5:1.  I’m normalising everything to -18dB RMS on this release to maintain some amplitude consistency and also due to it being a slightly noisier album than I usually make.  These choices may not be for the best but I do what my ears tell me to do.  I should note that T7 crashed to desktop so many times during the mixdown process this week that I wondered if I was running Windows XP.  Much as I love the flexibility and approach it is frustratingly unstable at times.

Track by Track

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Blood of the Slaves

This is the origin of the vibe of Black Mercury.  Air Loom and Roland System-1m through Zynaptiq Morph.  I’m playing both instruments via the Push in realtime and also twisting the X/Y of the morph index to create sudden timbral disturbances.  The second half is the same process with Nord Modular and some unintelligible vocal samples to represent the “jinni”.

Prefer the Company of Machines

Initial track  jammed out on the V-Synth with a super-banal E-Piano patch running through AH Effekthascher with its settings modulated by K-Devices Tip.  I took the original jam and attempted to chop some structure into it.  With the addition of effected drum ‘n bass rhythms it skews oddly towards a style of jazz-lite infused glitch that was somewhat popular in the early ’00s.  The title is empathetic towards my son whose vocalisations are bit-crushed into the fabric of this work.  I regularly empathise with his preference for screens and gadgets over human interaction.

Imposter Syndrome

A layered improvisation with the Push 2 running Nord Modular through Madrona Labs Virta, and some Micro Modular percussion through AH Effekthascher.  Joe has the MM at the moment – looks like it could be taking him in an interesting direction.  This is arguably the rawest moment on the album.  “This is me now” – pretending to be a musician.  Wondering why people listen, why I get jobs teaching when all the electronic musicians I’ve met create more palatable sound than I do. Hence the title.


The essential follow-up to the previous track – this is my “Avant-Classical” moment. It’s essentially two tracks of Shbobo Shnth – resampled and played from the Push and run through FX.  The Timpani / Bass is filtered low and put through some Melda Saturation.  The other “Viola” track is going through Fog Convolver with a snare brush impulse and then through 2CB2 reverb for the lush space.  The original Shnth sound is more like a “Squeezebox” accordian.  The theme of the track: nostalgia is a form of depression – thinking back to how much better things used to be…

at Play in the Fields of Borges

Another track focusing on Shnth sampling – this track is built mostly by chopping up a jam into slices and improvising to the Zoom R16.  I wanted something more overtly “Concrète” so my focus was primarily on simple manipulations and juxtapositions rather than processing.  The sound of what I believe are Masked Lapwings is a recording I made at 2am one morning a year or so ago.  The title is self-indulgent reference to made-up landscapes – i’m pretentious to a fault.

Cloud Refuge

Starts with the amazing sound of a synthesised flute being overblown – courtesy of the amazing Nord Modular.  In many ways this sound is destined to refer to the Lapwings from the previous track.  The rhythm and bass backing is classic Roland System-100 courtesy of the Plug-Out (run through the Sys-1m hardware though).  Then we have the quite epic Dulcimer, a patch from one of my V-Synth banks run through Magnetic (a fab Space Echo emulation for Live.)  Various parts of the track are put through Crusher-X for maximum aggression and B2 for dragon wings.  I’m thinking of Permutation City here. So much music has been sucked up into the iCloud – how soon before our physical manifestations yearn to join our data?

the Church of Enlightened Disinterest

Another smart-arsed title that doesn’t quite do the music justice – though the pattern does avoid commitment and resolution.  I used J74 Progressive to make the initial pattern a clear(ly fake) guitar patch on the V-Synth which I then iterated on through multiple tracks of Ircam real-time audio to MIDI conversion triggering a series of Kaivo sounds.  I don’t remember where the rhythm came from – I suspect the DM-1 iPad app – in my head I hear John Balance chanting to it.


Look it up some time.   It’s one of the most toxic places in the world (and also an eco-tourism destination!)  The source of the toxicity is e-waste.  When I started thinking about this project I thought about where the “blood of slaves” might come from in modern times.  Is it the slaves in the sweatshops that build circuitry for Apple and Samsung?  Is it the mindless masses chained eternally to their smartphones?  Is it the tens of thousands of Ghanians guaranteed respiratory problems from lead poisoning at the end of this production chain?  This lament is an extended sigh from the Shnth with a combination of B2 and Kaleidoscope processing to bring out the ghosts.

One Frozen Moment

“… when everyone sees what is on the end of the fork.”  For me it is our struggle to live creative middle class lives in late stage capitalism, while continuously looking over our shoulder at the black dog of climate change.  It genuinely surprises me that I can align the prose and ideas of William S Burroughs to left-leaning environmentalism.  In spite of his sexual preferences, his perspective, however arch, always seemed to the right of libertarianism.  At any rate… this is the machine running by itself with limited human intervention.  Mainly pops and clicks from System-1m running through the Scooper and Demora delay.  The ending lacks the fireballs of the intro – it’s a ghostly abandonment.



The artwork had an equally important influence on this release.  As the sonic and thematic concepts reiterate the combination of different elements to create a mythical whole – so the develop of deep-dream, neural-network analysis art has inspired my visual aesthetic… ably supported by the Pikazo app which generates morphs in around 10mins.

The cover image was a lucky combination of my face and the circuitry of a Roland RE-20 Space Echo.  With some touching up via the (now free) Nik Collection in Photoshop it reminded me of Peter Gabriel’s initial solo album cover art (produced by Peter Christopherson for Hipgnosis.) I reiterated this concept in different guises for the interior panels.

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While it has been suggested that this is a narcissistic approach I disagree for the following reasons:

1) I’m “owning” my music/organised sound by putting my face to it.  This is one of the more accomplished things I’ve done (in my opinion) and I’m prepared to back it up with my face – for better or worse.  My psych would be proud of me i’m sure.

2) As minimalist music requires a simple central feature to illuminate the process here my face is the dull constant manipulated to greater surrealistic potential.

3) Is it really narcissistic to wanna make my face look weird?


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