Thuja – Hills LP
Thuja’s 2002 album, Hills, emerged out of a particularly productive phase for the loose assemblage of musicians known as the Jewelled Antler Collective. Extant since the late 1990s, formed in San Francisco, Jewelled Antler had developed out of a certain disaffection with how independent music had ossified, become aesthetically conservative; at the same time, the two artists leading the collective, Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse, who had recently formed Thuja alongside Steven R. Smith and Rob Reger, were dialling down the volume, moving away from the instrumental rock interludes of previous groups like Mirza, and exploring more rugged terrain – laminal improvisation, wistful wide-eyed folk songs, field recordings and home-recorded electro-acoustics.
By 2002, Jewelled Antler had developed a certain notoriety for unstintingly releasing excellent, small-run CD-R releases, supported predominantly by local record store Aquarius, with word slowly spreading across the world to other like-minded artists – in Finland, in Australia, in New Zealand, in the UK. Thuja’s albums had been picked up by Craig Stewart’s visionary Emperor Jones imprint, but Hills was released on a small-scale American CD-R label, Last Visible Dog, run by Chris Moon. One of four albums (and two more mini-CDs) Thuja released that year, it’s a startling document, a collective of eviscerated dream tones and cavernous psychoacoustics.
The unforced, luxuriant development of Thuja’s music – a misty fold of keyboard drones, tinkling piano, clusters of percussives, shuttling and scrabbling strings and other things – often asks for metaphor from the natural world. But this is also distinctly city-based music, as Donaldson described it: “insular warehouse music from a still affordable city, before the internet dominated everything. No intention of getting noticed or ‘streamed’, just making sounds for the sake of it. A rejection of rock things: clubs, structure, volume.”
The music on Hills and other, loosely contemporaneous releases (see, also, CDs like Suns, Ghost Plants, and All Strange Beasts Of The Past), often played on broken instruments and non-instruments, with small, sensual details captured by contact mics, was “all improvised,” Donaldson recalls, “but no ‘jamming’ or soloing [was] allowed, just a slow evolution towards a mood.” In that respect, Thuja can lay claim to a heritage of all-in-one, group-mind improvisation that arcs back to AMM and Musica Elettronica Viva, but also connects with other, less immediately recognisable precursors – there are shades here of groups like Biota, or composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s improvisatory outfit Astreja. There’s a relaxed yet questing folksiness too, and some loose sympathies with the hermetic nineties free noise of New Zealand groups like Rain and Sandoz Lab Technicians.
Any way you look at it, though, Thuja’s dimension is all sound – a dreamer’s vision of a wrecked landscape, blurring into your ears.