Local instrumental-electronic group Sonmi (Mike McBride aka Peripheral on synths and production, Dave Mathes on drums and production, Robert Garmhausen on guitar and MPC, Nigel Gilmer on bass, synths and electronics) recently road-tested some new material during a support slot (opening for Papadosio) at The Orange Peel. The group is currently at work finishing up a debut full-length album — an exciting prospect — but seeing them live is like catching a glimpse of the inner workings of a complex machine.
Sonmi is poised at an interesting time for an instrumental band. Everything to do with musical taste is subjective, but lately there seems to be shift both toward narrative songwriting and toward orchestration — but away from instrumental music in the jam and rock realms. Pop bands are adding jam elements, folk outfits are adding string sections, and electronic groups are adding vocals either through singers or samples. That Sonmi has so far stayed the course with its combination of production and live instrumentation, but no voice, is probably a large part of why the group has been able to evolve and hone and refine its intricate sound.
Listen to “Tunnels”:
But Sonmi is so much more than a mere electronic band. The end result is much more visceral than mechanical, more organic than synthetic. There’s a current that hums through the performance but instead of an electrical current it’s a flow — an almost meditative, animate pulse that holds the ear in its slipstream.
And, and for all of its technical complication, there’s an accessibility to Sonmi — kind of like that scene in Phenomenon where John Travolta is handed the book of Portuguese language lessons and by skimming it he becomes fluent. You don’t have to understand the syncopated mathematics of Peripheral’s samples or Mathes’ percussion to comprehend the alchemy of the band.
It’s all about balance — a dance of tension and release, the coiled energy of the drum kit and the expansive, elastic washes of guitar and synthesizer. It’s all about texture — ambient yet rhythmic, galloping and gliding. The air is cool but sweat beads. At the high end, the soundscape is celestial; at the bottom it’s a growl of machinery and muscle.
And, although the musicians barely interact on stage (usually a cardinal sin in live performance) their chemistry is palpable. They play as if each was standing in an isolation booth, yet they halt and start, segueing from one movement to the next with turn-on-a-dime precision.
Maybe they’re robots. If so, they’re robots with a lot of heart.
Sonmi’s new material comes with a thicker edge, some teeth, a nod to metal. But the aesthetic is a variation on a theme. There are the bleeps of video games, the pulse-quick cymbal, the bass played high and close and the architecture of built-in pauses that allow razored slices of silence to cut through all the buzz and drone because, in all of these sounds, silence is its own instrument. Sonmi gets that.