Prop: between the known & the limitless

Gail Priest

1996 FBi Benefit. A group of painfully young boys loaded a marimba and vibraphone onto the stage and attempted to compete with Silverchair belting out from the Hordern. I feared for their safety. The punters were at first bemused but by the time they ripped through the theme from The X-files there was moshing and general uproar and the band Prop had arrived.

Since then Prop has added members to the line up and fine tuned their unusual aesthetic to become one of the most interesting live electronica acts in Sydney. Highly skilled musicians, the boys from Prop fluidly slip in, out and around genres, using everything from jazz, funk, classical, dub and muzak. But what gives Prop its idiosyncratic sound is the ways in which they exploit the connection between minimalism and electronica (trance etc). At last, 2001 saw the release of their debut CD Small Craft Rough Sea (Silent Recordings).

Small Craft Rough Sea could be perceived as a concept album—each track guiding the listener through a musically speculative, if boyishly idealistic, journey in space. Track one, Nebula, is aptly named. With a beguilingly simple melody, the vibraphone creates a heady feeling of suspension, supported by a liquid baseline, lightening gravity’s hold on our aural world. Track 2, Landing, undercuts this nebulous world with earthy tones and swings into easygoing action playing with textures of dry marimba, a drippingly fluid vibraphone and icing sugar glockenspiel. With Mount Zero we have liftoff, Prop at its best. With Reich-like repetition, the piece builds on itself, overlapping marimba, vibraphone and keyboards, with a satisfying consolidation when the drum and base kick in, magically building into a high energy burst of rhythmic, mesmeric hammering that Prop does so well.

It feels like the tuned percussion is de-emphasised in the middle tracks, making more use of electronic sounds and drums. Care for Them (also found on the Silent Recordings Sampler) offers an easy-listening interlude, with rhythm responsibilities falling to a unfortunately tinny drum track, but offering the tuned percussion more melodic freedom, yielding a hyped muzak feel. Solo Trip is a real highlight in its satisfyingly solid fusion of genres—creating a jazz/funk/fantasy/noir track that shows real compositional strength.

We return to a more traditional minimalism in Low—an 8 minute piece based around a marimba riff, seemingly repetitive but subtly ever shifting. Magnetic Highway/Remora is an energetic 13 minute epic, with pulsing base, soaring synths, driving drums and electronic glitches, topped off with splashes of tuned percussion. Magnetic Highway is an excellent frenetic dance party piece which rhythmically drains itself to become Remora, a rockdrumming chill out number. Portal is the fast and furious culmination of all the energy of the album, with RSI inducing high-velocity hammering and a repetitive synth horn line, like Phillip Glass on speed. The final track, Sirius, as if completing a cycle, is gentle and undulating, calming and conclusive, if a little functional and less inspired than its precursors.

Having seen Prop perform, I eagerly awaited the album. The physicality of the musicians playing the tuned percussion live is fascinating and produces an unusual energy. The recording process offers Prop more opportunity for blending between the acoustic and electronic instruments, for tweaking and fiddling, particularly as pieces were recorded in a studio and then worked on over a period of time in the group’s various home set-ups. They judiciously manage to stop just short of overproduction, though I found some of the synth sounds a little too charged with 80s sentimentalism—amusing in a retro way but veering the space journey somewhere known rather than to a place of limitless sonic possibilities. However, the journey that Prop takes us on is a captivating and rewarding one, with beautiful compositional shifts, rhythmic roller coasters and mesmeric moments.

Small Craft Rough Sea, Prop; Dave Symes, Jared Underwood, Jeremy Barnet, Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes; Silent Recordings. Prop will be appearing in Sydney at The Basement, Feb 15, Bellingen, Feb 28, Byron Bay, March 1, Brisbane at Zoo Bar, March 2; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 9, 2pm & 6pm.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 32

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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