Both Megan Mitchell’s confidence and skills as a vocalist and experimental composer have been steadily rising since we started tracking her work a few years ago, and she’s reached a new level just in time to give her most audacious project the sort of presentation it requires. Composed entirely out of recordings of Mitchell’s voice, Fractured Whole draws upon lesser-explored dimensions of both ambient and industrial composition, presenting a rich and considered but also deeply affecting and unnerving listen.
Mitchell wouldn’t be the first person to use such a seemingly limiting or abstract framework to guide the record. She also wouldn’t necessarily be the first to so finely dice and loop samples, vocal or otherwise, to the point that their origin is lost as they take on the sound of pure sawtooth waves, as happens on opener “Penance” (for better or worse, the entire genre of extratone has emerged out of such pursuits). Instead, what sets Fractured Whole apart is the strength and poise of Mitchell’s unprocessed vocals, and the sharp compositional instincts which dictate when to manipulate them, and when to let them hold their own sway over the tracks. The resulting tension produces something both out of time (“Reconciliation” falls somewhere between medieval plainsong and one of the wordless tracks from the B-side of Low) and mercurial; because the ‘instrumentation’ consists purely of manipulated vocals, all manner of listening protocols one might normally be subconsciously using to track a piece’s ebb and flow are stymied, and the surprises are constant.
If the dynamic between pure and heavily manipulated vocals is Fractured Whole‘s primary gambit, its secret weapon lies in Mitchell’s milder warping of her voice, nudging familiar and organic registers off the precipice of the uncanny valley. “Vestigial Mythology” recalls the vintage vocal sampling employed by Laurie Anderson, with the weight and hammering of the keys used to play samples juxtaposing with the sound of the source voices themselves. Elsewhere, tics and stutters begin to bloom and spread throughout a specific passage, slowly wresting control away from Mitchell’s own vocal cords; one vocal line eventually begins to twangily skim along like the leads in a vintage psytrance track on “Precipice”.
During a recent conversation about timbre, my jazzbo dad was noting how easy it is to mistake one instrument for another if the attack and decay are simply snipped off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had similar thoughts while listening to ambient or experimental records in which vocals are deliberately blurred into pads or programming, with the ambiguity of where one voice ends and one keyboard begins being part of a record’s charm. But Fractured Whole works differently. Not unlike Brecht’s epic theatre, in which plot is revealed preemptively in order to shift the audience’s attention away from speculation or anticipation towards a more critical register, Mitchell shows her hand on Cruel Diagonals by putting the origin of all of its sounds, no matter how inhuman they might sound, up front. As the panning and reverb of the pieces swarms and envelops you, though, you realize that knowing their provenance offers no answers or safe harbour. Unmoored from time or breath, they haunt of their own accord. Recommended.