Electronic Music | Alka Interview: The Colour of Terrible Crystal

Alka’s The Colour of Terrible Crystal, the third album release from Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords, will be released via digital download and as a limited-edition CD on October 13th. In advance of the album release Mat Smith sat down with Bryan Michael, the force behind the Alka project, to find out more…

“It felt a lot like angels were presiding over the recording sessions for this album,” says Alka’s Bryan Michael, whose third album The Colour of Terrible Crystal will be released by Vince Clarke’s Very Records in October. “My collaborator Todd Steponick, who I worked with on the album, had just lost his mother and a close friend and it seemed to us like angels were all around us at that point.” Whether or not you believe in angels yourself is more or less irrelevant here; the point is that the notion of celestial beings circling Michael’s studio space opened up the creative channels required for him to complete this album, his first in eight years.

Since the release of 2009’s A Dog Lost In The Woods, and his programming work on Cure keyboardist Roger O’Donnell’s noodling Moogfest Songs From The Silver Box, Bryan Michael has busied himself with endeavours such as restoring vintage synths (he’s presently repairing a 1984 Emulator II) and restoring a 120-year-old Victorian house just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. “It has been hard to find the time for making music these past few years,” he admits. “I had so many ideas and I had started so many tracks, but I could only etch out a little bit of time here and there to finish things off. I knew I was getting to this point where if I didn’t pick it back up again, it was just going to go by the wayside. What really helped with this project was that I enlisted the aid of some of my fellow electronic musicians in the Philadelphia area, so it became more like a collaborative effort, and that really helped.”

Those collaborators – Steponick, Erika Tele and Audra Harley – and the renewed energy with which he approached what would become The Colour of Terrible Crystal have allowed Alka’s music to develop something of a borderless, genre-neutral quality that moves Bryan Michael’s style a considerable distance from the melodic IDM that had been the mainstay of his 2007 debut The Principles Of Suffocation and A Dog Lost In The Woods. “It happens with music in general, but specifically in electronic music – people get caught up in this strict need to identity something with a specific genre. That’s good in some ways, but I always prefer to hear a much larger cross-section of things,” he says.

The effect of Michael embracing so many styles and variations is like listening to a museum curator carefully nurturing his collection of exhibits. The appeal of such diversity is one that the curator himself has struggled to fathom. “I’ve been trying to piece that together forever,” he laughs. “Like, how do my interests mesh together in this way? What I’ve realised lately is that I’m friends with a very esoteric group, and we’re just naturally intrigued by a large variety of topics and interests. With the music I’m making right now I want to have the same broad approach, but not forcibly so. I don’t want to get to get stuck in too strict a pattern because I’m influenced by a lot of different sounds, and I just try to incorporate a large cross-section of those into my music. It’s a bit like a good library collection – you want to have a little bit of everything.”

“… and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. They move through the firmament which is the colour of a ‘terrible crystal’, and around a throne like sapphire, on which sits Metatron, suffused in the radiance of the rainbow.”
Peter Lamborn Wilson, Angels (1980)

Books are an important influence on Bryan Michael, and in the case of his latest album, he owes its title to an obscure work by the alternative philosophy writings of Peter Lamborn Wilson, best known for his espousing of the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones, or social structures that evade formal control – something that the stylistically elusive music of Alka might well be a reflection of. “It was just one of these synchronistic moments,” he says. “I was reading Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Angels, which is a beautiful, beautiful book about angels in different religions and in mysticism, and that quote jumped out at me. It just resonated, and I thought it represented the various pieces that make up this collection of songs. It also came at the same time that I had found this very strong image which a Chicago glitch artist I had befriended – Sara Goodman – had come up with. It was this really beautiful piece of art which, to me, looked like this mysterious figure holding this glitched crystal in her hand as a sort of offering. It just connected everything that I had been reading at the time, and that reference to The Colour of Terrible Crystal fit the pattern of my other releases, where the titles are quite prose-y, and the image resonated so strongly that I had to use it.”

Metatron is Hebrew in origin, but is believed to be derived from the Latin mētātor, meaning ‘one who metes out or marks off a place, a divider and fixer of boundaries’. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of the music that Bryan Michael delivers on The Colour of Terrible Crystal, where boundaries are anything but fixed. This is a record that moves fluidly between almost-pop, the kind of post-John Carpenter early Eighties horror soundtrack favoured by the Burning Tapes label, jerky electro beats, glitchy electronica and even a nod to the earliest experiments with electronics.

Despite suggesting that Michael the musician is every bit as well-read as his literary self, he is relatively coy about his influences. “I always try to create what is happening at that moment with the programming, with whatever sounds come out at that particular moment in the session,” he explains. “But I try to not be obviously influenced by certain sounds. I’m not trying to be pretentious by saying I’m not influenced by anything – of course you’re influenced by everything, either consciously or subconsciously – but I try not to let anything influence me too much.”

Over a couple of beers in a British pub in Philadelphia, we talk about bands that Michael grew up with in his formative years, many of whom were the jumping-off point for many electronic musicians – early New Order, Depeche Mode up to and including Violator, Nitzer Ebb, Skinny Puppy and so on. If you listen to The Colour of Terrible Crystal closely, you can just make out the tracest echoes of some of these bands, even if they are elusive and fleeting and refracted through Bryan Michael’s own lens; it’s not that Michael is necessarily trying to obfuscate his influences, just that the sheer volume of ideas he comes up with allows for a complete freedom of passage between them.

Questlore is a track on The Colour of Terrible Crystal that seems to perhaps more overtly convey Michael’s influences, being set to a classic Mantronix-esque electro beat that tricks the listener by skipping ever so slightly just at the point you’ve settled into it. “It’s just stuff that happens,” shrugs Michael, casually. “It’s almost a Brian Eno Oblique Strategies sort of a thing. I didn’t intend for it to happen. It’s a happy accident. My older material always tended to be more melodic, a little more light, but I’ve always been drawn to the heavier kind of backbeat that would drive a track along.” The title of Questlore, reminiscent of the game World Of Warcraft, does not in any way indicate that Michael is some sort of gaming nerd, though he does confess to a subtle awareness. “It’s nothing that I know of – it just made sense at the time,” he insists, “but it does play on that sort of fantasy adventure type thing, almost like this song is a fantastic sort of journey.”

At one extreme of the album is the track Melancholy Lasts, complete with Michael’s own heavily vocodered voice. The song is a deft Alka homage to some of the synth pop that he grew up with, but something of a big departure from the style listeners would have been accustomed to on his first two albums. “I was trying to break through from a traditional sort of IDM kind of genre trap,” he admits. “In attempting to break through that I did start to do a little more of this traditional pop song structure type stuff, and it was refreshing.” Michael also says that working with Vince Clarke’s keen ear made that foray into more pop forms slightly easier than if he’d just been trying to achieve it on his own.

“I like to play with vocoders a lot,” he continues. “When I started experimenting with a pop structure I started to incorporate a few more vocal elements. You can hear Erika and Audra singing on a few of the tracks. I guess I just wanted to incorporate a little more of a vocal element on this album, but I’m never going to sing. I wanted my voice to fit with the music. That’s where the vocoder came into play.”

Some of The Colour of Terrible Crystal‘s most surprising moments arrive at the album’s other extreme, on Over Hills And Vales and Under Waves And Seas, two companion pieces that seek to tap into the legacy left by some of the earliest electronic music pioneers. “I really wanted to get to the roots of what electronic music was doing back then, in the late Forties, early Fifties, into the Sixties,” says Michael. “It was more experimental. When Wendy Carlos released the Switched On Bach album, electronic music creators and aficionados at the time were pulling their hair out because the synthesizer, with this endless range of possibilities, was being confined to this classical music tradition. Those two tracks were a direct connection to that earlier electronic sound. I was trying to get back to the question of what electronic music is, and how we can avoid getting stuck in set genres. To do that I decided to look and see how it all began, and that was really refreshing to get that out of my system and to make those songs.

“I think they hold up pretty well as soundscapes,” he continues, “but they’re definitely difficult listening.” With scratchy, slightly unnerving sounds, it’s possible to see these two pieces as akin to the fear-inducing soundtracks to particularly unnerving psychological horror films. Bryan Michael was slightly surprised that they appealed so strongly to Vince Clarke when they were selecting the tracks for inclusion on the album. “I mean, I love them, but I didn’t think that they had much appeal outside of me just messing around with these soundtrack kinds of things,” he laughs, with evident self-deprecation, “but he heard something in them, and he’s said that what he loves about my music is that sort of cinematic quality. He said a few times that you could put any kind of visual element to those two tracks in particular and you could just be transported into this other world.”

The Colour of Terrible Crystal is an enigma of an album, made by a quiet enigma of an artist. This is a body of work that is fully and beautifully untethered, able to go wherever it wants like the angels that may have been watching over the sessions, and broadly influenced by everything and nothing simultaneously. This is music where contradictions, left turns and unexpected moments find a place to meet and hang out, a record that both respects the electronic music of the past and yet presents it in an utterly original contemporary fashion; where occluded crystal can sparkle with the perfect clarity of diamonds.