Is it better to hone a consistent sound or branch off onto different paths? For Richard Swift, it’s overwhelmingly the latter. His stylistic forays are almost schizophrenic in their incongruence. He started his solo career creating Tin Pan Alley pastiches before moving on to Randy Newman-like piano pop and synth-heavy new wave, but recent years have found him mining scratchy garage and soul with a reel-to-reel recorder. He’s an adept producer, as well, adding clever touches to both his own work and others’, like the recent debut album from the Mynabirds. Aside from music, Swift creates his own music videos and short films and has a pretty extensive photography collection. And if all that wasn’t enough, he finds time for an experimental electronica side project called Instruments of Science & Technology. It’s this last endeavor that’s so eyebrow-raising, but Instruments of Science & Technology allows Swift to try on yet another hat, fully integrating his work as both a producer and a musician.
Music For Paradise Armor is one album in a lengthy series dubbed Library Catalog Music. Started by Asthmatic Kitty Records, the series is a commission of instrumental albums for possible use in film, television, relaxation, or as background sounds, and Armor fits almost all of these categories. The songs are uniformly glitchy, utilizing both computer beeps and vinyl hiss as the rhythmic base. Swift seems to relish the blank canvas, creating tiny, minimalist environments for exploration. The album is undoubtedly meant to be listened to on headphones; the sounds are paved over through conventional speakers, but they pop and fizz when they’re directly in your ear. Songs like “Nuux” and “Station Number Set” are busy without being overbearing, and Swift’s choice of analog recording prevents the textures from becoming too cold or mechanical. His pop sensibilities occasionally bubble to the surface — he ends the record with a short solo pump organ melody — but they’re usually swallowed up by the restless electronics. He even explores atonal sounds on “Mt. Mountain” with samples of a randomly plucked guitar and a sped-up drum loop. Suffice to say, it’s a dizzying stretch from the simple piano ballads he’s known for.
Despite the joy to be found in the experimentation itself, all of these moving parts and ideas are a bit exhausting to closely follow. They may be minimal in ingredients, but the songs make quite a racket, pulling your attention to every skittering sample and computerized note. As background music, it’s too complex to just simply ignore. The result is overwhelming at times; by not providing enough terra firma, the listener is stranded in a bizarre, glitchy sea. It’s certainly a playground for Swift as a producer, as he gets to be the mad architect of these nebulous compositions. The melding of the organic and the technological is equally intriguing and unsettled, but the restless Richard Swift wouldn’t have it any other way.