Somnambulists, “From the Field to the Factory”

The music of guitarist Warren Ng is like a recurring dream, with warm familiar motifs that float away before conscious perception can grasp its contours. Minimalism as the gradual variation of near-identical iterations attains its highest form on From the Field to the Factory, the latest work from Ng’s Somnambulists project that uncovers common strains between timeless personal motifs and intense personal struggle.

Record label Zum Audio describes the album as “a cycle of instrumental works that reflect on labour and struggle, repression and revolt, history and forgetting, and abstraction and meaning… meant as memorials to the invisible, the unwritten, and the unvoiced, to an inner experience stretching outside of time.” That’s a nice Hegelian embellishment on the whole thing, but ultimately, I mean… whatever, right?

Certainly, Ng’s dirge-like washes of open-ended harmony and lilting textures split the difference between the guitar traditions of Chris Forsyth and Loren Mazzacane Connors, and the nameless troubadours who sang labour-organising folk songs in the struggles of yore. And the tenderness of discernible melodies dissolving into echoing loop-worlds does have an element of the inevitable to it all, the same feeling Hegel supposedly got when he saw Napoleon riding triumphantly through the bloody ruins of Jena.

But as much as we may try to escape time and place through beauty, or find common purpose in our disparate sounds, let’s not forget that Warren Ng is, like you or I, just another toiler on this rock. “The Streets Were Paved with the Blood of Saints,” for example, mournfully meanders through a chromatic scale, whispering its suggestion of a eulogy for unionists killed at the hands of Pinkertons, or brave martyrs at Haymarket Square or what have you. Yet what’s so lyrically evocative about these pieces is that the warm blood in Ng’s hands seems to energise the music itself.

The contrast (okay, we can be cute and call it a dialectic) of robotic drones and lovingly improvised, intentional melodies is exhibited on “And the Rain Swept In.” Ng has the uncanny ability to make the guitar sound as though it were somehow put on autopilot, repeating mechanical motifs without any human agency as prime mover—but sometimes the guitar seems to grow a spirit of its own. This is explored more fully in “Circular Ruins” and the triumphant, 17-minute epic “Memories of the Blind,” where dark, meditative themes slowly unfold against a backdrop of foggy ambience.

Frankly, it’s a high cultural crime that Somnambulists isn’t famous and filling up stadiums full of hypnotised dilettantes paying through the nose for Ng’s services. In the interest of working-class solidarity, you can be first in line.