Review: Sarah Hughes and Kostis Kilymis – The Good Life

There are only 100 copies of The Good Life. You can’t find it on Amazon. Its roughly tactile cardboard packaging is entirely handmade. Its content is improvisational, slow moving, almost devoid of melody. Gangnam Style it ain’t. For some people it will be difficult to listen to, in the same way as a dripping tap is difficult to listen to. But it is in The Wire’s top 50 albums of 2012. For a project that hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to court celebrity, that’s pretty impressive.

The CD consists of two tracks: the 27-minute Fossils and things and the 24-minute Pussy Riot. On both Hughes plays chorded zither (and mosquito alarm) and Kilymis is responsible for the electronically produced snap, crackle and pop. I would like to predict that I won’t be using the word ‘pop’ again in this review. The first piece in particular is about as far from the common conception of music as it is possible to get whilst still being on a compact disc. The apparently random plinks and scrapes, the length of time between ‘events’ and the sheer dissonance of these events may seem unappealing but there is a space, beauty and restraint to this recording that bears repeated listening.

This type of improvisational music is often described as immersive, but I don’t like that word. It makes me think of drowning, of heaviness, of an inability to move. Whereas this recording has a lightness to it, a shifting quality that is so subtle that it can catch you off guard: the sound you are listening to now is completely different from that of five minutes ago, and you haven’t noticed it change.

The second piece, Pussy Riot, is the more melodic of the two, the more immediate and the more grounded. But it is only a vestigial melody, a hint towards a musical reference point, a knowing wink at the outside world: Hughes’s plucked zither picking out delicate constellations against the electronic backdrop. Pussy Riot is also contains the most aggressive passage on the record, albeit an introspective aggression, like a fleeting shortness of breath. Then it’s back to serenity.

The Good Life, despite appearances, is an involved and involving record. Its title suggests playfulness, even a hint of irony, and there are traces of musical narrative in both pieces I have yet to explore properly and which may yet turn out to be red herrings. This is a type music with comparatively few precedents, and as such can be challenging. Hughes and Kilymis must be applauded for making something so challenging so appealing.

Words: Tom Blake