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Magda Drozd: 18 Floors

The Polish-born, Swiss-based artist Magda Drozd is active in many spheres but is perhaps best known for her previous album, 2019’s Songs for Plants, where she wove musical pieces around field recordings made from the actual sounds of plants. Like that album, 18 Floors is part music, part field recording and, like her previous work, it’s more about listening and sound than it is about songs in a traditional sense. Built around a core of field recordings made in and around the residential estate in Zurich where the artist lived for several years, 18 Floors focuses the listener’s attention on the minutiae of everyday sounds that we accept without acknowledging or even noticing. In doing so it creates a peculiar and atmospheric sound-world that is often melancholy in its enigmatic, familiar-yet-otherness, the haunting sound of a location that is haunted by the living; by us.

On the whole, the pieces are even more minimalistic than on Songs for Plants, but as with that album, the artist’s audible presence varies from barely discernible washes of electronic textures to full-blown songs with instrumentation and vocals. Although made up of more and less defined pieces, music and sound, the album works best as an immersive whole. The opening “Vertical Misunderstanding” is typical of what’s to follow. Mainly consisting of unidentifiable, but entirely familiar sounds – what could be wind noise, various kinds of clattering and clanging, presumably of human origin – a distant synth hum, restricted to just a couple of repeated notes adds an unexpectedly and powerfully poignant atmosphere, tinged with unease. “Over Exposure” which follows, is more of the same in a way; a minimalist ambient piece of dislocated shimmering electronica that sounds like the intro to an old record by the Orb, followed by a delicate, understated synth melody that is almost overwhelmed by industrial-sounding whooshing noises and echoing thuds. It’s extremely effective in establishing and sustaining a mood but is too abstract to be memorable or even really musical. That changes with “Pink Chimney”, one of two actual songs with vocals and a tune rather than just a tone and atmosphere. Again opening as a kind of shimmering electronic piece, the song takes form with the introduction of Drozd’s strange, high-pitched and oddly blank but very likeable voice. The lyrics are flatly but beautifully descriptive and the evocation of the very conventional surroundings makes something magical out of the ordinariness in the same way that the more abstract pieces bring together familiar elements to make something that is evocative and strange.

Those more abstract tracks individually feel insubstantial and unmemorable; on “Salty Wind” there’s just two and a half minutes of the sound of – who knows? Wind certainly, but also random, possibly human-generated noises and scrapings and just the subtle electronic textures unfolding beneath it. “Dreamy Monster” is even more minimalist, what sounds like synthesized bird noise and insect chirrups and a kind of faint electronic or industrial throb. “Laundry Walk” meanwhile, seems to be the sound of an actual laundry room; coins in slots, the twist of knobs and running water, pipes hissing.

By themselves these pieces don’t seem to add up to much, but they are crucial to the experience of the album as a whole; more than just segues between the more obviously musical segments, they give the album the feel of an organic, almost living whole. The pieces where more traditional musical elements blend and interact with the found sounds are probably the most appealing and poetic. “Disposable Panic,” where violins and a foghorn-like noise (itself possibly a cello or violin) intertwine with the running of water and whispers of wind and what sounds like the sound of the sea is beautiful and austere in a Julia Kent-like way, while “Balcony Harbour” builds from a sighing wind sound into a kind of forlorn Red House Painters-like indie rock. “Velvet Worms” is introduced by the singing of a blackbird and what sounds like insect noises, is the album’s other vocal piece and is another beautifully enigmatic song. Drozda’s unearthly high voice is delicate and fragile and although it has a melody and even a beat, at a short three minutes it feels almost as fragmentary and spectral as much of the rest of the album. After “Velvet Worms,” 18 Floors seems almost to evaporate into the ether; “Inexhaustible Unwrapping” sounds like a floor being swept with stark guitar notes repeating and melting into an ethereal cloud of synthesizer, while the closing “Parted Shadows” is almost pure field recording; footsteps, creaking sounds, indecipherable snatches of speech, a clock ticking, with only the most subtle of electronic elements beneath it.

18 Floors is a beautifully delicate, skeletal yet paradoxically rich listening experience. On the one hand, Magda Drozd’s demonstrable skill as a singer-songwriter makes the listener want a more conventional indie pop album from her, but on the other, there are already lots of accomplished indie pop records out there, but very albums few like this. Drozd is one of that handful of artists, like Rachel Mason or Laurie Anderson, who make the boundaries between high art and pop culture seem entirely artificial, but having said that, she requires the listener to listen in a way that very few pop singers ever do. Approached as a conventional album with lots of extraneous sound effects, 18 Floors would barely be a satisfactory release, but immerse yourself in it and it becomes a thing of ghostly and poetic beauty; a reminder of the endless strangeness of everyday living that we all take for granted.

Multifaceted artist Magda Drozd can write and sing pop songs, and occasionally does so; but what she really wants us to do is listen.
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Sonic world-building

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