If you accept the notion that a true artist can operate successfully in any medium he turns his attention to, then Russell Mills is your modern-day Renaissance man. How else would you describe someone who has designed album covers for the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Youssou N'Dour and Miles Davis, book jackets for Samuel Beckett and Milan Kundera, has collaborated in half a dozen art installations involving sound, sculpture and light over the years and was a member of the Wire off-shoot group Dome back in the 1980s?
Strange Familiar is Mills' third Undark album, and as with the others an eponymous debut in 1996 and last year's more visible Pearl + Umbra, he's assembled it by inviting friends from the music world to supply sounds of their choice, with the understanding that he could then sculpt them as desired. (Past collaborators have included Peter Gabriel, Harold Budd and Thurston Moore.) This time around, the list of contributors is a veritable who's who of art rockers, ambient pioneers and guitar slingers, including U2's The Edge, Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Brian and Roger Eno, Michael Brook and fellow producer/arranger Bill Laswell. Apart from David Sylvian's distinctively delicate vocals on "How Safe Is Deep?" (RealAudio excerpt), deciphering who plays what on which of the eight 10-minute tracks is a guessing game, but individual credits seem irrelevant anyway given Undark's collage technique. These are not exactly pop songs.
As with his visual designs, Mills' music is all about texture and form an ocean of subtlety occasionally interrupted by the obvious. "Stone's Eggs" (RealAudio excerpt), built around a subtle guitar strum and bongos, is ethereal almost to the point of invisibility for most of its 14 minutes. "Blood Is Climbing" uses string sounds to a similarly distracting but far weirder effect. "Underground Kite" hovers in the distance for a near eternity.
Fortunately, Strange Familiar is about more than artistic navel contemplation. "Ice in the Sleeve" and "Rain in Our Room" (RealAudio excerpt) offer cleverly constructed semi-industrial beats akin to the cruelly underrated Meat Beat Manifesto. The former threatens to hit the dance floor but eventually proves shy, while the latter has no such qualms. Indeed, with its piercing guitar chords and mutated vocals, it would make a devastating 12-inch, should Mills feel willing the hand it out to remixers. And why not? If Undark is all about molding a mass of sounds from a variety of contributions, wouldn't it be wonderful to hear it deconstructed and reassembled all over again?