Ákos Garai | PILIS

Review by Tobias Fischer on 10th December 2009

"Games of the mountain: One of the more mysterious albums of this year."

As aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking as field recordings may be, their public perception is prone to a popular fallacy: Even by minutely documenting your hikes into the countryside and backing them up with a truckload of photographs, sketches and journal-entries, you can never fully recreate the sensory experience. More disturbingly, many of the great musical moments mother nature has in store for us are only rarely susceptible to the minute preparations of a field recorder and have a rare talent of occurring at the very moment the microphone is pointed into the opposite direction – or in none at all. Perhaps it is rightly because his previous output has characterised him as a careful drone-builder with a knack for emotional and precise tone-placement rather than a field-purist, Akos Garai may have an inbuilt sensitivity for putting things right. Over a decade after switching from his former position as an axeman with various Grindcore-bands to his new calling as a Sound Artist, he has arrived at a surprisingly convincing solution to this dilemma – and managed to bridge the regularly quoted divide between field recordings and music while at it.

Indeed, everything about „Pilis" breathes an air of discovery, spontaneity and immediacy. For an artist who has published a mere three solo-full-lengths in seven years' time (this one included), even its production cycle is infused with an unusual sense of urgency, as though the album not only needed to be made, but also wanted to be published as closely to its compositional genesis as possible. And thus, Garai embarked on his trip in April of this year, finished processing, editing, arranging and post-producing the material as early as July and published it only two months later. It is a technique which one could confuse for a maniacal obsession or a carefree urge to take risks without looking back, but which, in reality, turns out to be the utter confidence of not vaguely believing or guessing but knowing that a particular work has turned out just the way you wanted it to. It should be fitting in this context that Garai chose to take care of every aspect of the release himself, providing images and contributing design as well as founding his own label, 3LEAVES, to remain in full control of every single aspect of the music.

What's more, you don't even have to listen to a single second of the album to realise it has turned out his most personal effort to date. When Garai talks of Pilis being a sacred place and of its wondrous mountains and natural habitat“ in the liner notes, he may merely be referring to facts. But when he dotes on the scenery's "beauties of nature, the fresh forest air, and the presence of positive energies“, it is becoming increasingly clear that he has no intention whatsoever of hiding his uncompromising affection and unabashed sentiments for this place. More precisely, „Pilis“ has turned out a confession of love for an environment which looks, feels and sounds as remote from the lights of the big city as could possibly be. The 50-minute work follows the composer, as he gradually descends from the mountain's highest peak down to its foot. As he's walking down, he is passing through various scenes, small spaces filled with colourful variations of the same elements: Rocks, brushwood, grass, trees, stretches of forest, birds and insects. Most importantly, however, there is the ongoing presence of a clear-watered stream, which accompanies the wanderer all the way, like a good friend.

The image of the river is essential to „Pilis“ in several ways. For one, it is the lifeline of the mountains, replenishing its energies and rejuvenating its century-old face, withered and battered by the elements and the gradual force of erosion. Then again, it is a metaphor for the philosophical idea that nothing can ever really repeat itself: As Garai moves forward, he is, in a way, never walking along the shore of the same stream, but observing its continuous metamorphosis. And finally, it is a musical Leitmotif for the album as a whole, reassuringly underpinning these minimalist sonic scenarios. It is the sound of the stream that holds the loose events of the album together, provides them with context and texture, structures their flow and awards them meaning. Some might claim that this essentially simply means that there is an awful lot of water to be heard on this disc. But paying attention to its constantly changing surface, its minute variations and inner dynamics does pay off for anyone with an open ear.

If Garai had decided to simply present his trip without any kind of additions, he might have earned some applause in the scene and that would have been the end of it. Instead, he afterwards decided to complement his recordings with additional layers of electronic processing. These are never of the typical romantic Folk-type or ethereal Ambient-elements. Rather, they act as a conscious contrast with the organic sweetness of the environment: Rumbling, subsonic waves and glitchy micro-ticks, high-pitched, disturbing alarm-bell-like squeals, deep, hollow reverberations like a ghostly combination of chilling wind and the distant drone of airplanes. On the overall scale of the piece, these episodes are few and far between and never particularly long. Occasionally, one doesn't even notice their presence until Garai has taken them all the way to the foreground and exposed their alien nature. And yet, their presence is of seminal importance. One feels like observing bewildering little spectacles, like stumbling upon whims of nature and the spirit of the mountain playing little games to entertain its visitors and itself alike.

One could of course ask what the purpose of these games might be. That, however, would be completely against the intention of the album. Even Garai himself, when looking back to his trip, could not say for sure, „why there and then, when I felt like it, I stopped, sat down and recorded the sounds of the stream and the environment“ - he just did. This is exactly what one experiences as a listener, too: An epic, encharming, quiet and yet sweeping journey through a magical landscape which takes on great plasticity. You never quite know what it all means, but once you've sat down to listen, it is next to impossible to press „stop“ before the music has gently ended on its own accord. It's not just that „Pilis“ is aesthetically pleasing and occasionally thought-provoking. Its multiple layers of perception offer the rare chance of replacing the actual experience with a different, yet equally fresh, one. By refusing to ask questions and by following nothing but his instincts, Ákos Garai has resolved the inherent dilemma of field recordings – and created one of the more mysterious albums of this year.


Ákos Garai | PILIS

Review by András Szolnoki on 28th November 2009

Ákos Garai’s work “Pilis” takes us to the mountainous region not far from Budapest by the same name. It received its name from the old Hungarian word for tonsure, that is to say the practice of cutting the hair from the scalp, as Christian monks used to do. Reason for this name was that the mountains were used for growing grapes, and therefore looked like a bald head. Those days are now long gone, and the Pilis is nowadays a lush forest, with streams, hiking trails and wildlife.

One day Ákos was hiking in this beautiful place, and on the descent from the highest peak in Pilis he recorded the sounds that surrounded him. The material recorded during this hike was used as the starting point of this composition. Computer-generated layers were added and in time these layers changed into sonic thoughts, that were inspired by the original field recording and memories from the hike.

The recording itself starts off presenting the sounds of the natural inhabitat of Pilis. We soon come to hear the sound of the stream that Ákos followed down on his path from the mountain top. The theme of water is encapsulating this composition, with Ákos returning to this sound repeatedly throughout his work. The progression from the natural sounds of the Pilis to the computer generated sounds has clearly defined points at the start of the recording. The pace of change from one world to the next slows somewhat down the further we move from the top of the mountain, and the sound of what is man-made and recorded grows in sonic strength.

The power of water is shown both through the way Ákos lets the intensity of the field recording play out towards the end by itself, and through the addition of a deep generated sound. The combination of sounds marks the crescendo of “Pilis”.

The journey we undertake is finely structured and themed. The continuous flow of the stream works well with the context of the composition. All in all “Pilis” is a fine piece of work, one where neither the field nor the layers of manufactured sound dominates.

Adding to the sound is the physical presence of Ákos Garai’s first release on his own label 3LEAVES. “Pilis” comes as an exquisite CD-R. As written on the label’s homepage: “Label releases will be consistent in appearance: 300gr art paper printed digitally in 4+4 colour with inserted CD-R on the sleeve, packaged in tracing-paper or crystal clear sealable PP bag. Writable media is the Japanese Taiyo Yuden brand that is known for highest quality and reliability. Three Leaves releases are hand-numbered and comes out in 150 copies.” Yours truly is the proud owner of number 026. In the age of quick fixes, it is highly appreciated that artists and record companies go an extra step when it comes to presentation.

Soundscaping warmly recommends you to take part the aquatic-laden aural trip that is “Pilis”.