The Odd Sounds of "The Arteries of New York City"
An Interesting Music Project
BY: PAD CHENNINGTON
The Arteries of New York City are a duo of experimental musicians /photographers Jamie and Alex who have based their production style on instinct, letting sounds or ideas conjure through primitive and relatively unformed experimentation.
Based out of the UK, the two friends rely on pulling apart their music and putting it back together again at a later time in a more deliberate state, instead of painstakingly aiming to hit a certain style or mood upon recording. A dependence on quick decisions through an OP-1, vocal loop samples, environmental sounds, improv piano playing and other countless ways to birth a sound, the Arteries of New York City have been able to construct a range of musical landscapes, from faint and brittle to rugged and all-out destructive, and it is their self titled album from 2020 that I want to explore with you today.
If you’re into expansive auditory journeys, all sounds gorgeous to haunting, atmospheric to full of life, this one is for you my friend. Thank you for stopping by today, and let us dive into this true musical oddity.
PART 1: BEGINNINGS
Let us take a look at the story of The Arteries of New York City and how the duo came to be in the first place.
Jamie and Alex would first meet in 2007 after Alex, who worked with children in after school clubs at the time, would discover the music of Jamie on Myspace. One Friday night, Alex would find Jamie’s band “The Last Dinosaur”, and would end up falling in love with the song “Home”. He would then write to Jamie, explaining how the track would evoke feelings of nostalgia for a place he’d never been, which would eventually lead to the two of them creating material together. Jamie, who I was able to get in contact with and talk to during the creation of this video, explains how these nostalgic feelings seemingly inhabited a similar space on their self-titled album 15 years later, a yearning for a place that perhaps never quite existed at all.
He makes mention of how the two have always been keen observers and over-analysts of the world that surrounds them, and they’ve both appreciated how photography is a perfect use of those attributes or predispositions they’ve found in the world. Their strong connection and love for both music and imagery undoubtedly led to the creation of this album, and as we’re about to get into, what makes it so special.
In regards to the name: The Arteries of New York City is taken from an old black and white film of the transport networks of NYC, a title Jamie kept aside for a decade or so and never allowed himself to forget. They realized that the name portrayed their project perfectly once their material started to take shape. The music brought to mind visions of industrial New York in black and white to the cozy and crunchy autumn leaves of Greenwich village sidewalks, and everything in between.
The two would look through and admire the work of Saul Leiter, a New York based photographer and artist from the 1940s and 50s, a known pioneer in the world of color photography. They would discover imagery that, along with the name, perfectly encapsulated this universe they were creating at the time with their sound.
Saul was known for incorporating rain, snow, and other visual overlays in his paintings to bring to life actually being in New York City, and this practice of applying numerous textures or visual effects on top of the main source material or subjects in Saul’s work is also found within how Jamie and Alex top off the final soundscapes and personalities of sound within The Arteries of New York City.
PART II: THE ALBUM ITSELF
For the album cover, Jamie and Alex settled on an image taken in the immediate aftermath of an accident; a portrait of a man lying beside the car that had just hit him, framed by two passing commuters.
Looking at the actual image itself, feelings of claustrophobia ensue as the suffocating textures of two suited jackets squeeze the tragic subject matter into such a tiny frame of view. On the surface level, New York City’s big bright lights and never sleeping, always working glamor can coat some of the more horrid, hidden features the city has to offer, and I believe Jamie and Alex couldn’t have chosen a more fitting or riveting cover for a 7-track release titled “The Arteries of New York City”.
After many years of friendship and mutual admiration (as well as a tendency to spend considerable and frustrating amounts of time on their own solo recordings) Jamie and Alex both felt inspired to create something new; something with a deliberate focus to act on intuition and instinct, this album's main component.
One of the earliest sonic combinations of experiments, sketches and vocal loops was quickly (but painstakingly) interwoven with samples from the Yellowstone National Park sound library. These sound bites were collected by Jamie overtime with the intention of using them at just the right moment, and you’ll find them scattered throughout the entire album. These are blueprinted alongside Alex's beautiful, improvised piano tumblings to create a full atmosphere of sound.
The two soon ended up with a track provisionally (and, as it transpired, definitively) titled “Dyn”, which you will find as the 2nd track on the project.
“Dyn” is the longest track on the album at just over 4 minutes long, revving up with the sound of croaking frogs and heavy, yet soft, bellowing drones. Half way through, the song erupts and shrieks into the night, until it is eventually soothed and put back to bed by Alex’s piano playing. It’s absolutely hypnotic, and these warbled keys paired with what seems to be some light strings, tick like a clock.
“Cass” was the next track that emerged. The start of the process followed the same pattern as “Dyn”: an OP-1 sound collage, created through so many quick decisions, Jamie told me he couldn't begin to break it down for me on how the process exactly transpired. He got into the DAW, or their digital audio workstation for those who don’t know the term, and just began messing with, and stretching and deconstructing, the musical substance he had in front of him.
I tend to imagine Jamie sculpting these tracks like pottery, throwing them around and around again and just feeling out whatever he was working with until it stood in a way he found fit.
Various lights in the studio would be systematically turned on or off in different combinations until the duo had the right mood to start improvising. Once Jamie constructed the instrumental to “Cass” with these elements, he was reminded of an old video a friend had sent him of a catatonic schizophrenic being interviewed in a psychiatric facility in the 1960s. The patient (who felt more 'human' than the interviewer) spoke of his relationship to the piano with such beauty and pathos. When he incorporated a sample of this interview into the track “Cass”, Jamie was seduced by the sadness and performed some slight editing on the sample for narrative purposes. This process was done numerous times on the album, Alex providing a piano for example, followed by Jamie building a story on top of that piano in post production with added vocal or interview samples.
“Cass” is a gorgeous track, the unbelievably light and airy piano playing falls like raindrops through your ears, splashing with scattered notes that move in all different directions... I want to reach out and grab every single note that seems to just run away from you as the track progresses into, eventually, nothingness.
“The Telemetry Has Ears, The Magnetic Field Has Eyes” is the shortest recording on the album at only a minute and 19 seconds, a one-mic recording of a little guitar idea Jamie had that Alex improvised to life. The track was made quickly as they stumbled upon the initial idea for the track right before hitting record. Jamie edited the track down in post very slightly, roughing up the edges of the piece to create an interesting element of decay, all aiming to create something organic with elements of digital disruption. The sliding of the guitar and delicate piano fumbling through the faint buzzing feels like two siblings searching for an old photo or heirloom in a dusty attic, and the track ends on a bit of a comedic note, no pun intended, as Alex plays a mistake of a chord, with the two having a laugh about it all... It’s nice.
The track title is a play on words of the painting The Trees Have Ears and the Field Has Eyes by Hieronymus Bosch.
The title track “Yaesu (Light Talking) was built around a loop of Alex moving the piano stool across the floor in the studio, which created a low thumping shuffle and clatter alongside a groaning sound. The loop was free form, Jamie recalls, but it appeared to have its own internal rhythm which Jamie uncovered with piano chords from Alex and improvised bass and electric guitar lines from himself. This piece specifically was aimed to sound like Greenwich village jazz basements, and I could feel exactly what Jamie was aiming for.
A little personal account of myself, Greenwich Village is one of, if not my favorite, areas in all of Manhattan, and when I was in college, my now fiancee would take me to different jazz clubs in Greenwich Village on my birthday. Every time, the clubs would be so overcrowded, stuffed with the smell of whiskey and other well drinks and everything about it was so genuinely charming and alive, so hearing that this was the same inspiration for Jamie’s desires here on the opening track was just so heart warming to me. If you’re not from the area and ever visit Manhattan one day, make sure you make it a goal of yours to get lost in Greenwich Village and just stumble upon a Jazz spot, you don’t even need to look one up beforehand because you’ll definitely find one by just strolling the streets. Anyways, I can talk about the village forever so lets get back to the album.
The track “Capable” is actually a little experiment initially made using the elements from the end section of “Dyn”. Jamie had a voice note of a little idea played on the guitar where Jamie repeated the lyrics “You’re only as capable as you think you are. You’re only as in love as you think you are.” Which Jamie interpolated onto the canvas. They then had some fun playing with rhythm and delay, cymbals, sticks and bass drums, weaving and repeating in and out of time, all eventually disappearing from the piece but continuing somewhere else, just out of range.
“If I Could Make a Living”, the second to last track on the album, mainly consists of a one-take improv by Alex, with some light edits by Jamie in order to create a narrative, similar to how their combined efforts created the end result of the track “Cass” like I mentioned earlier. Improv is the name of the game on this album, as you can tell by now, and this one specifically was polished off in a way to create a subterranean feel around the improvisation. Jamie imagined a camera falling through a gap in the sidewalk down to the subway station... dipping, diving and gliding through empty train lines all accompanied with the sounds of machinery, a faraway train, or an engine idling, waiting for the next part of its journey. The sights and sounds of the subway are essential to the New York City experience, and that heavy low end of the track mixed with the glimmering, sparkling piano work from Alex once again shows all the wonder, highs and lows of New York City life. The echo effects on the track are distant and full of wanderlust, the piano hopeful and bright.
And that brings us to the finale track: “From Worldly Cares”.
Essentially a rescoring of a jazz standard written by Richard Rogers, “From Worldly Cares” is warped and skewed with little glitches from the future interrupting memories of the past, as Jamie likes to put it.
The outro track blends some eerie duet vocal harmonies over more of those laid back pianos. It’s truly beautiful, contrasting, and even cinematic in a way. Both Jamie and Alex play piano on here, adding their own perspective on how to recontextualise Rogers’ melody, and once they finished it, they knew it was the perfect ending for the album.
The album overall has a diverse range of instruments and sound textures, all mixed with scattered vocal samples throughout. Some tracks are quaint and warm, others more mysterious and brooding, but all fit as these glimmering transmissions that peak through the surface, only to burrow back down shortly after. And whenever sounds can get rough or harsh, there’s always this soft side of chill, loungey pianos and jazz club qualities that bring you out of that unknown territory, yet I feel like that alone also just adds to the confusion of the album as a whole. Although relatively short compared to other ambient experimental or musique concrete albums, the oddity in The Arteries of New York City lies in its ability to contrast moods and themes constantly. You can never quite put your finger on what it’s trying to be, and just like the millions of personalities found within New York Cities people, infrastructure, underground or Greenwic village Jazz basements to be specific, the album is full of life and diversity.
PART III: THE CASSETTES
You can find The Arteries of New York City as a digital download on the duo’s bandcamp, but you can also find the album at Bloxham Tapes, a UK based label that featured the release on two different cassette releases.
Each of these releases were done at an extremely small quantity. Both editions features an O-card which I always love for cassettes, it gives more of a canvas to express any extra design features or commentary that the artist may want to include on their work, a big shout out to Jamie for sending me over one of these to take some shots of for this video. The O-card features the title of the track, BT23 in the corner which is the catalog number for this release on Bloxham Tapes, and the alternative artwork used for the Bloxham Tapes release of the album. The back features a minimal looking tracklist on the top and more fine print below, and removing that O-card reveals a simple white cassette waiting inside of a clear jewel case, no printed j-card in there which is a really nice look for a release like this. The 2nd edition run of the cassette, which was only released as a 35-copy run,was released on a black cassette, and both of these cassettes are now long sold out.
PART IV: So Now What?
The duo are slowly, but surely, working on The Arteries of New York City 2 alongside some of their own individual projects. They both want to honor the exploratory spirit of the first album’s creation by not rushing the sequel, but instead, evolving it whenever they feel the need to do so. Jamie states that this method will make the album different from its predecessor, with Jamie’s motto being “never make the same song twice”.
Jamie is currently in the midst of releasing pieces from another side project with a mutual friend of The Arteries of New York city called Lila Tristam. This project, like Arteries, will be released on cassette later in the year as well as digitally. Jamie is also halfway into the recording of a new Last Dinosaur album titled Perigee.
Alex has a collaborative album out soon with Berlin-based label Sonic Pieces. The project is called To Move and will feature more piano improv, along with some compositions this time, all wound together with glitchy analog tape-loop interjections. On top of all this, a mini album will also be released titled Volta, Alex recording that one in Greece last year with Greek composer and sound designer Alkis Livanthinos.
PART V: Impact
Whenever I get the chance to speak to artists I explore on this channel, I always love to ask them what they believe makes a project impactful.
Alex responded with "I don't like applying the filter of judgment to someone’s work and second-guessing motivations/intentions etc but equally a lot of the time it does feel like a lot of work is just going through the motions of creativity ... It doesn't have to necessarily be something deep; i think we (humans i mean) just like to feel that something meant something to someone when they made it .. but that’s inherently unquantifiable - and it should be .. the second it becomes an over-considered process it risks losing what may have otherwise made it transcendent .."
Jamie states that they are drawn to the sense of movement. And finds beauty in being somewhere at the end that you weren't at the beginning. “We didn't set out to make something experimental, we just wanted to experiment as well as
excite and challenge ourselves and our preconceived notions about how we've been approaching creating and collaboration. A day spent making is never a day wasted.”
Thank you so much for stopping by and checking out today's article, and until next time my friend.