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Alone on Penguin Island

Desmond Simmons

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Album Review

Just as creative differences can sink a record, they can also make for an interesting project. The latter is definitely the case with Alone on Penguin Island, multi-instrumentalist Desmond Simmons' 1981 solo debut. The album paired Simmons (who appears on Colin Newman's A-Z and Not To) with producers Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, then on hiatus from Wire and pursuing their abstract interests as Dome. Gilbert and Lewis' experimental aesthetic focused on the artistic process itself, as opposed to the finished product — which sometimes meant that recordings Simmons considered works-in-process were already the finished article as far as the production duo were concerned. Alone on Penguin Island suggests a dialectic of unresolved tensions, of construction and deconstruction, as Simmons' songcraft vies with the sonic hallmarks of Dome: austere industrial minimalism; mechanical rhythms; claustrophobic ambiance; shards of noise. In places, Gilbert and Lewis seem to have the upper hand. The ominous title track submerges listeners in a netherworld of nagging loops and disquieting atmospherics and on the eerie "April Waits," Simmons' plaintive, disembodied vocals suggest Eyeless in Gaza locked in an isolation tank. At the same time, however, Simmons contributes a melodic touch and a dynamic range that Dome often lacked. This is especially evident on short instrumental pieces such as the droning soundscape "Beacon Hill Six," as well as song-based numbers like the queasy, Wire-esque "To Be Lost." The most memorable material maintains a delicate balance between Gilbert and Lewis' oppressive, reductionist urges and Simmons' more expansive sensibility: the relentless, chugging "Man the Lifeboats," the melancholy "Pathenon" and the anxious, jittery "By Air or by Sea." Simmons envisaged Alone on Penguin Island as a hybrid of Wire's 154and Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star but, whatever the original conception, this turned out to be a unique and intriguing record.

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