The new (7th) Half-handed Cloud album, Flutterama, is a record of 18 jubilant indie-pop songs that investigate spiritual incompetence with lively, rhapsodic arrangements and radiant melodies that dissolve into sonic deterioration using herky-jerky tape manipulation and analog wow-and-flutter with an animated orchestra of home-recorded sound effects. This is an album of juxtapositions and contradictions, where joy and sorrow are underpinned by festive mourning, where balloons and tablecloths battle with trombones and pianos, and where the tape machine itself plays a vital role in the album’s drive, interrupting moments of ecstasy and revelation with varispeed pitch shifts and grainy decay. As with all things Half-handed Cloud, these songs are quick, bright, spastic, and fantastic. Whole libraries of sound and sense are compressed into mere seconds, with lyrical depth and wordplay conveying wit, wisdom, and existential anxiety that often seem at odds with the music’s joyful, child-like surfaces. At the center of this auditory journey lies the conscience and imagination of band-leader John Ringhofer, whose awe-and-wonder explorations of sound and unique spiritual conviction work in tandem to make sense of a world at odds with itself. If art is a battle, this album surrenders.
Flutterama is also an artifact of Ringhofer’s pre-pandemic isolation as an American expat: at the end of 2014, he moved with his young & growing family from the California Bay Area to Helsinki, Finland for his wife’s university linguistics research position. After that, during the next couple of years, they periodically packed up and temporarily relocated to South Africa over a few months for his wife’s fieldwork there. In South Africa, a disoriented Ringhofer would take the wheel on the right side of the rental car (and the left side of the road), and tell himself that he was driving like The Beatles.
In this shifting environment, Ringhofer’s natural impulse was to dig in, wherever he happened to be. He recorded an unreleased demo album in 2016–2017 titled Wearing The Path that corresponded with the timing and treasure-map-pacing of his daily Helsinki nature walk, letting the contours of the landscape dictate the structures of songs, loosely based on the Stations Of The Cross (in a muddled sequence), with the aim of charting those field paths and birch forest trails in sound.
Roughly half of the songs from that unreleased demo were re-worked for Flutterama, although not before Ringhofer wrote and recorded a separate cassette-taped children’s side project album in 2018, I Don’t Have A Bib, along with his two older kids (5 & 3 at the time), and self-released it on Half-handed Cloud’s Bandcamp page for homemade releases.
By the time Flutterama was ready to be tracked in Helsinki at his own Bureau Of Radiophonic Research (BRR) home studio, Ringhofer’s ½” reel-to-reel tape recorder had arrived by sea from California, sailing on a slow-moving cargo ship through the Panama Canal. The 16-track recorder was last serviced by a sound technician also employed by The Beach Boys in their home studios, and Ringhofer hoped his machine could retain some of the “magic” that also brought us their “teenage symphonies to God,” preferring not to have the tape machine tuned-up once it turned-up in Helsinki, and letting its possible misalignment stimulate Ringhofer’s lopsided and scurried pop experiments, reflecting the value of unclear things.
Partly because of this, Flutterama exudes a sort of “muffled” wonder, as if its tape reels had been buried (beneath earth? under snow? embodied?), decaying, rotting, interrupted, losing steam, falling asleep, out of synch, but reaching for light, weightlessness, and holy spectacle in a world of personal trauma, isolation, a wavering political climate, and impending environmental disaster.
The album’s tape-fiddled tunes employ surprisingly little synthesizer (“it felt like cheating,” says Ringhofer)—he preferred to craft most of the album’s effects the long way, frequently going behind the back of rock instrumentation by hand-feeding ½” magnetic reel recordings of chord organs, deflating balloons, some guitars, piano (occasionally tracked with a baby on his lap), brass, tablecloth swipes, and a quickly-cranked half-speed music box. He was assisted by long-time Half-h contributor Brandon Buckner on drums, and single-song backing vocals from Anacortes, WA songsmith John Van Deusen.
Ringhofer’s work on Flutterama was inspired by Frances Mary Hunter Gordon’s adolescent liturgies (recorded at Abbey Road during The Beatles era), turbid sights and sounds in Guy Maddin films, R. Stevie Moore’s home-taped pop universe, audaciously bold forms in Sister Corita Kent’s devotional printmaking, the exquisite brittleness of Elizabeth Cotten’s voice, Alberto Burri’s stitched wound burlap assemblages, Alvar Aalto church design, Andrea Büttner’s poverty-informed artwork, Lou Barlow/Dinosaur Jr’s lo-fi “Poledo” sound collage (which name-checks Jesus), Julie Canlis book A Theology of the Ordinary, Wallace Berman’s visual collage, and The Raincoats’ magnificently shaky D.I.Y. aesthetic.
Probably more than anything though, John took cues from late ’50s/early ’60s pre-synthesizer academic tape music (Henk Badings’ ballet soundscapes, Malcolm Pointon’s home constructions, İlhan Mimaroğlu’s musique concrète, and Tod Dockstader’s “organized sound”).
Like Dockstader, Ringhofer occasionally served as a sound designer during the period of Flutterama’s production, fabricating sound effects for cathode ray tube puppet show The Creatures Of Yes, and WNYC’s Orbiting Human Circus (Of The Air), a surrealist narrative podcast created by The Music Tapes/Neutral Milk Hotel’s Julian Koster. Ringhofer also contributed to Y2K throwback video game Hypnospace Outlaw. These associations helped to spur him on to dream up his own new audiovisual worlds, building upon routes he’d begun to peek into on 2014’s Flying Scroll Flight Control LP.
The yanked sound fabric of Flutterama’s songs explore feebleness as they unravel, shimmering as they sputter, stretching out a hand for the marginalized, the uprooted, the severed, the busted, and examining the range of both death’s heavenliness and its murkiness, with thrilling layers of wooly hiss, “groaning inarticulately” in disintegrating glory like a scuffed and wobbly vanitas painting.