This first appeared at The Liminal.
‘I once saw a comedy sketch in which a cow was attached to a winch. The cow was winched up 200 feet, and for the first ten feet after it leaves the ground the cow is freaking out. And then above that: completely placid. Because it is no longer relating to anything. It has no fear, because it has no consciousness of what it is. Whereas a human would be freaking out all the way up. So I wonder if maybe that point at which a non-sentient animal stops freaking out, and we don’t, is where dread occurs.’ China Miéville
In 1958 Mark Rothko was asked to complete a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant housed in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building. It was quite a commission for an artist working in a field that many felt was obscurantist and practised by charlatans and mimics. Many questioned Rothko’s motives, and indeed Rothko himself eventually pulled out of the deal; but not before he was reported as uttering that he’d intended the paintings to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” and that he’d make “those rich bastards feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up”.
Anyone who’s seen the paintings – now in their own quiet reliquary in the Tate Modern – can see how inappropriate they would have been for a restaurant space, and apocryphal or not, you have to wonder at what Rothko was intending with such vast, imposing canvases – dense blocks of colour that have the feel of cave walls, of entoptic phantasmagoria, of portals. One obvious conclusion is to think that, however clumsily, he wanted them to do a kind of work, using dread to elicit a shift in consciousness. Dread as praxis.
Of course, in and of itself, invoking Rothko when discussing dread is completely relevant, but it’s not just a random signifier when it comes to Rites, the debut album from Bristolian and Subtext label-head Paul Jebanasam. For one thing, the cover is immediately redolent of Rothko with its hovering stripe of ever-reducing red between two dominant blocks of black; but there’s also the sonic use of dread that Jebanasam employs and the sense that he’s using dread in a particular way, and in the oldest sense of the word, as a kind of propulsive medium, a galvanising force.
Back in 2011, in a review for The Liminal, Andrew Bowman noted that dread was ‘back’. Dubstep, borrowing heavily from jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, had always invested heavily in the sonic possibilities of dread, indeed to the point that it became an empty signifier and lost any sense of wider cultural meaning and became invisible again. The likes of Demdike Stare flirted with similar possibilities, but the dread they invoked always seemed to be part of a wider strategy, more akin to outright horror – dread in this sense meant a kind of creeping menace, of something just out of earshot or ones field of vision. What the likes of the Haxan Cloak, Raime and other artists clustered around the fount of the Blackest Ever Black label seemed to be doing was something ‘purer’ – dread as end in itself. The key question was/is why?
It seems too obvious to simply state that the presence of dread is simply a temperature-marker of our times, but it’s the ‘neatest’ explanation, if you like. If you search back for dread-inducing music, you might alight on Bark Psychosis, 23 Skidoo, Throbbing Gristle, early Kluster – all music made in dread-ful times, but then couldn’t that be applicable anywhere, anytime? In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams brought up the idea of a ‘structure of feeling’ – that most of impossible of things, to mark the felt sense of the quality of life in any particular period or time. His suggestion was that the structure was impossible to pin down, but that it operated in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity. With that in mind, dread in culture, and particularly in music, functions as a kind of collective emanation, a breath of doubt from our very deepest dreams. Going back to the question of ‘why?’, Kodwo Eshun, reviewing the same gig as the aforementioned Andrew Bowman, suggested that the dread invocations were a symptom of resignation – a sonic avatar of Romantic awe in the face of the impossible, the unrepresentable: listeners weren’t galvanised or even necessarily terrorised by the power of the music so much as willingly narcotized by it. Like much of dubstep this was stoner music, escapism, dread as lavender pillow.
All of which does beg the question: need dread make us submissive and powerless? Or more precisely, what is it about dread that renders us awestruck and dumb? In a recent interview with China Miéville, (by Juha van ‘t Zelfde, who is also curating an exhibition called Dread, due to open in September 2013) Miéville locates dread in the same affective field as the sublime, and ultimately in the same field as ecstasy – something he called a “politically and philosophically polyvalent condition”. His point was that dread, from a purely affective point of view, can quickly tip into something else, both into a kind of paralysis, something similar to what Eshun noted, or something more creative, subversive and powerful. Miéville notes that this valency is often seized upon by the right and can easily become something reactionary and politically dubious and that this might be an inherent tendency, but it need not be the case.
Now I’m not about to suggest that Rites is going to function as some guiding star for this re-figuring of dread, it’s too sombre for that, too damn heavy. But, but… there is something positive at the heart of it, something bigger than a mere ghosting of a series of tropes. Looked at purely sonically, it’s built from comparatively little – processed strings (viola, mainly), some processed guitar deluges, huge devotional drums and vast metallic drones, that sound scraped from the very centre of the earth, (which in the case of ‘IV’ they almost literally ‘are’, in that Jebanasam set up some ground loops – recordings of the earth-hum – which form the centre of the track). It’s possible to think of the drones as forming a kind of vaulted-chamber within which the drama of the individual tracks take places – like cathedrals of sound inside which vibrate the smaller details. The sound palette feels very new, unexplored; at times it brings to mind Locrian, at other times there’s a very ‘Subtext’ thing going on. ‘III’ and ‘IV’ in particular sound close to the forms Roly Porter explored on Aftertime, (released on Subtext in 2011) – the same brittle high tones, the clash of metal, and the fibrous, almost asbestos-like edge to the drones. There’s also the great looming presence of the Multiverse soundsystem, which gives the bass undertow a by-proxy subterranean gravity that in places shakes the recording to the limits of the possible. Overall, it is undoubtedly oppressive and decidedly brutal in places, in the way it wields a kind of industrial weight, but – and you have to hope you’re not imputing too much here, separating the curtains and inserting your own figures – the feeling of hope remains, of a force for some greater good.
All of this is complicated by the liturgical aspect to Jebanasam’s music. He’s spoken in the past about his appreciation for Korsakov and Arvo Pärt and the sense of humility it’s possible to feel when faced with the glacial beauty of some liturgical music, that raw sense of being in the presence of something numinous and eternal – figured in the almost process-like monumentality of the compositions. And of course, and this goes back to Miéville’s notion of the crossover between dread and the sublime, the response to this is nearly always passive, is passive in its very design. We bow, we retreat into our cells, godfearing and minuscule. Yet there are two other ways of thinking about this. One is to remove the religiosity from it altogether (which I think is Jebanasam’s view anyway) which leaves the awe and the awesome power of liturgical process music – and you’re close to something like John Gray’s notion of godless mysticism. The other is in the rasta conception of dread, which, in all its murky syntactic power, is also ultimately godfearing and humble and yet manifests itself in the wearing of the dreads, an accoutrement borrowed from the Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya – dread in all its humbling power, taken into the self and made concrete and given agency.
Maybe in the spirit of Ballard, we can take dread – this thing we suffer attacks of, this thing that we have no control of, that debilitates – and push it through itself to some unthought of conclusion: beyond torpor, beyond accidie, beyond non-engagement. Who knows. Maybe there is a source of untapped power. With all that in mind, Rites, which has the aspect of a beautiful requiem, might just as well be a call to arms.
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
Images by Paul Bevan.
As we sat and awaited the arrival of William Tyler and Mike Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger), it dawned on me that a better name for ‘The Barn’, the dark, dank room that forms the back end of the Railway venue, would be ‘The Cave’. It’s disorientingly dark in there, chilly and damp – ostensibly an odd place for Winchester to welcome a wedge of southern Americana into its welcoming arms. But, almost in sync with the arrival of the duo, dishevelled and weather-deranged from an impromptu city walk, the air conditioning units kick in, and warm humid air slowly starts to settle across the backs of our necks. Sensurround, huh?
Tyler’s stage manner is such that the late arrival suddenly makes more sense. He’s only 34, but has the presence of one much older. He’s ramshackle and humble, sure, but he exudes an easy warmth, and a couple of minutes into the first of his many wandering anecdotes, we’re all there with him. These anecdotes form an integral part of his set and, by extension, form the bedrock of his exploratory songs – whether he’s on a Turkish train heading for the Syrian border (‘The Geography of Nowhere’), or wandering the bogged fields of Tipperary, dreaming of another home (‘We Can’t Go Home Again’). His signature guitar style is peculiarly inclusive too: warm and involving, with its circular chiming patterns and those long hanging curlicued notes combining like a soft cat’s cradle spun outwards from his battered Samick amp. His play – guitar wise, and anecdotally – despite the road-dog elements of a couple of the tracks on his new album, Impossible Truth, is largely speaking an easy association with the great myths of America; and the allure is palpable. A track like ‘Cadillac Desert’, with its rolling waves of clustered, ringing chords, is emblematic of this: the frontier, the expansion west, the stealing of land, of water. Later in the set, Tyler switches to an acoustic guitar. On a track like ‘Ponotoc’, the closing song from his previous record, Behold the Spirit, he retreats into the older myths, the ones that us penitents, stuck in the damp melancholy of another lost May, are most susceptible to: the twinned myths of space and silence and all their concomitant possibilities. We’re an easy touch and Tyler leaves to rapturous applause.
I’ll admit to a certain amount of ignorance when it comes to Hiss Golden Messenger. I knew a little of Poor Moon, the album from 2011, but nothing from before that, or of the new record, Haw. On record, the duo (M.C Taylor and Scott Hirsch) play an expansive brand of back-porch folk music, tonight though was a Taylor solo show, and I was taken aback by how nakedly spiritual it was. I’d been reading John Williams’s Stoner while waiting in the pub beforehand, and that book is one level about the shock of the ordinary, and this was true of Taylor’s set to a certain extent. He may explore familiar themes, but his commitment and investment in the songs lifts them out of the ordinary into something else. Taylor admitted that he and Tyler had reached the point of the tour where the enjoyment tipped into something else – the missing of loved ones, of home. As such, his song choices were all directed towards his pregnant wife and young son; or they were simple plaintive cries for direction, and for salvation. He introduced one song as “Sunday gospel – gospel for those trying to believe”, which was a good a signifier for the whole set as I can think of. Later on, he dedicated a song to Jason Molina, that ran with the simple refrain of “you’ve suffered long enough, my lonely one”.
The closing of the show was a revelation, with Tyler joining Taylor for a run through of several covers, including a lairy Gary Stewart track and a gorgeous run through of Lal and Mike Waterson’s ‘Bright Phoebus’. Tyler’s widescreen augmentations lifted Taylor’s gentle melancholy, and for a time the place soared.
No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,
As they were fifty years ago,
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,
Bending in blue dresses to touch something,
Today the mind is not part of the weather.
Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness
And it flows over us without meanings,
As if none of us had ever been here before
And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,
This invisible activity, this sense.
Wallace Stevens, 1954
Well, I think all music is prayer—like, every single performance, every single record ever made is somebody speaking to the unseen. It’s telling about what life is like for them, and what they wish for and hope for. And if most music is bad, it’s just because most of what people pray for is stupid—just trite little baloney that, you know, doesn’t really matter much. But every once in a while, you know, people tell the truth about something. You know, it’s really exciting when that happens.
I’ve not known a March like this one past, cruel and bitter under a pall of grey skies. The month started with a promise of spring. We walked in slanting sunlight across the top of Hockley viaduct, hooting, miming trains. Beneath the arching brickwork the Itchen had burst its banks. The water meadows, green and sharp, brimmed with pools of sunbright water. We parted for shrieking cyclists and R tumbled with flat hands on the cold concrete. On an old siding, under a stand of fruiting hazels busy with flitting goldcrests, we saw a discarded hub cap, home to a colony of snails. There came two days of bright sun, the air bearing the first slight signs of the spring thickening – birdsong, pollensong. We waited. Then came the whispers of returning winter. Cold air from the east, bearing snow and arctic temperatures.
The cold came in overnight, a giant storm from the north east swirling across northern Europe and up across the channel islands. The air was raw and metallic, dawnlight bringing with it a purple glow that fanned out across the underside of the roof of clouds – a roof that was to stay with us for pretty much the rest of the month, yielding little, if any, rain. That day it snowed for a good 3 or 4 hours, the air thick with it. Sheltering under a canopy of arching oaks, I could almost feel the ground contracting, the newgrowth shrinking back into itself. The birds had fallen silent.
That night the storm roared around the house. I came up from sleep, dimly aware of a muffled banging. I mentally travelled the hanging air from corner to corner of the house, but couldn’t make sense of where it was coming from. I came down the stairs feeling unmoored. It was as if the interior air itself were disturbed, displaced by the ferocity outside. I opened the back door and I felt the house gather itself around me as the night, blackly malevolent, seemed to force its way in. I waded out into the liquid dark and secured the door with a bag of cement dust that, disturbed by the whipping wind, puffed motes into the air that were sucked away into the darkness.
This air from the east stayed for the rest of the month and on into April. It brought with it ghostly remnants of its provenance, a taiga-born density of cold, a breath of ice. The brute cold settled into the heart of things; objects carried a new kind of weight, as if they’d been penetrated to a molecular level. As such, the usual spring signifiers remained resolutely enfolded, the hedges and banks dull of colour, the woods silent, arenas of felt absence. Everything felt held in abeyance, waiting, waiting. In the middle of the month, I was in the Cotswolds and the weather broke for a single day. It was as if the earth threw off a layer. Huge flocks of fieldfares and redwings broke cover, driven by a frantic impulse to begin their homeward journeys; the sky was a holding-pattern of hungry red kites, all monitoring their territories for carrion; usually elusive jays dropped from the bare oaks and pecked at the raw ground. The following morning it snowed again, and the earth re-enfolded itself.
At the beginning of April, finally there came a day warm enough to stand still. I headed into the woods with the boy on his scooter. We were looking for the bluebells, usually ‘up’ by now, washing the beechwood floor with their smudges of purple. The air had lost some of its edges, and a thick greyish haze hung over the fields and distant stands of trees. We wondered together if it was pollen, or if the heat had stirred up clouds of sleeping insects? As if in answer, we saw a solitary housemartin, the first of spring. The beechwood was cool and clear, and free of the nodding bluebells. The floor, though, was carpeted with the glossy green leaves. The bluebells would come, but like everything else held in the cold paralysis, they would come late. No matter. A ragged silver-birch, multi-trunked and choked with ivy, showed signs of fresh excavations in its hollowed out base. We sat and ate jaffa cakes idly wondering if the culprit might show itself. The sky purpled above us. It quickly became grippingly cold. We headed home across a bone-hard field, out, out of the mineral wind.
Title: The Withdrawing Room
Artist: Mary Lattimore
Label: Desire Path
This also appeared at the Liminal.
There’s a lot to be said for living with a record for a period of months before trying to write something coherent about it. You build a series of reference points and a haze of ideas, some of which get picked up from various sources, others of which you either invent yourself, or grow out of a vague mulch of experience and data gathering. The Withdrawing Room, the debut album from Mary Lattimore, a Philadelphia based harpist, has been a signature example of this. And the name I keep coming back to is Emily Dickinson. There’s something in the title that is very Dickinsonian, for sure (that sense of self-imposed isolation and pent up desire), and this is carried over into the music, which, on the surface, is similarly austere and controlled, but out of which streams great gouts of passion and a kind of billowing, engulfing numinosity. Lattimore’s method is to use long form compositions and to follow simple melodic progressions until they fracture and spread. In places, such as on the opening track (‘You’ll Be Fiiinnne’, at 24 minutes), Jeff Ziegler, her long-time collaborator, adds to this spreading effect via the subtle warping intrusions of his korg mono/poly synth. The effect is like throwing open the windows of solitude and letting the outside world in, with the synth bubbling and whistling like so many wheeling birds. Other touch points I’ve heard mentioned are more by association than anything else, ie woman + harp, well it must be like Joanna Newsom or even Alice Coltrane. Neither comparison is particularly useful or accurate, though if you were to plump for one, then perhaps the latter Ashram recordings of Alice Coltrane might function as a useful signifier in terms of Lattimore’s New Age leanings. Bucketful of reference points aside, the truth of it is that The Withdrawing Room is an original and quietly beautiful album that continues to reveal itself over many listens and is another triumph for the excellent Desire Path label.