I have a thing in the new MOJO - their 20th anniversary edition (pure coincidence, but still). It's a piece on Under Cambrian Sky by The Lowland Hundred and you should buy 1 copy of the magazine and 2 copies of the album. Immediately.
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.
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.
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.
Title: The End
Artist: Black Boned Angel
Label: Handmade Birds
This first appeared at the Liminal.
Campbell Kneale has been exploring the potential of the drone for more than 15 years now (in terms of releases, at least – before that, in the wilds of New Zealand and the wilds of interiority, who knows?). In high flung terms, his explorations call for a re-scaling of the word epic, a re-calibration of what’s possible in terms of sheer endurance, not to mention our very understanding of the phenomenological potential of the extended note and its psychedelic implications; more crassly put, his work is monstrous and alluring and repulsive in equal measure – and no more so than with his doom project, Black Boned Angel.
Kneale started Black Boned Angel 10 years ago as a duo along with James Kirk (more recently the band has incorporated Jules Desmond and Anthony Milton), the act creating blackened doom music, a kind of purist metal drone built around those early Earth recordings and the more unadorned Sunn O))) releases. There has always been something of a grand gothic edge to them, too – in the stage imagery, the backgrounded ranks of choral voices, and the themes of their records: Supereclipse, The Witch Must Be Killed, Verdun. Now the band have decided to call it a day, and The End is to be their last album, their epitaph. And it’s as if this has freed them up, somehow, given them an impetus to throw everything skyward, because that aforementioned grandeur is very much apparent, making The End an emotional masterpiece as well as one concerned with exploring the crushing sonic possibilities of all out heaviness.
The End is in three-parts, which add up to over an hour of music. It’s gruelling, yes, but that’s part of the point. A good chunk of Kneale’s aesthetic has always been invested in making you experience his time, so the listening experience is something akin to surrender. ‘Part 1’ is a magmatic, elephantine thing, guitar noise ripped to bursting point hoisted on blackened shrieks and Nadja-style programmed drums. This gives way, in ‘Part 2’, to something more unsettling, with swirling metallic drones and churning disembodied voices, like a choir buried hundreds of miles deep in the ground. The grinding riff, when it comes, is almost a relief. And it’s here that the emotional heft becomes really apparent, with the guitars buoyed by a vast organ patter that eventually decays into a simple fugue state lit by a simple piano figure. The closest comparison I can think of in recent times, in tone if not always in content, is another swansong – that of Corrupted, whose Garten der Unbewusstheit from 2011 had a similar soaring trajectory.
‘Part 3’ is built around another sludgy chord pattern that’s more lava flow than riff, above which flits a choral line treated until it becomes an almost theremin-like warble. Similar to ‘Part 2’ the track devolves into rubble and decay, as if the sonic fabric were unable to bear up under the strain. Which kind of adds up in terms of an elegy for Black Boned Angel; and there’s an admirable restraint in realising an idea has been pushed as far as it can go. The End stands (and crumbles) as a definitive final statement.
Title: Liquid Light Forms
Artist: Koen Holtkamp
This first appeared at The Liminal.
Koen Holtkamp’s Liquid Light Forms has been around in digital format for a few months now, but the delayed vinyl release (out on Barge in early March) has meant a slow accumulation of experience – the record has kind of percolated into me over an extended period. My initial impression was that it was merely another appropriation of the firmly 70s-rooted kosmische sound, with all the attendant baggage that brings, but repeated listens have revealed it to be a subtle and thematically interesting recording. I guess part of it comes down to trust in the end: Holtkamp, as part of the duo Mountains, has always had an ear for the skilful blending (of albeit mainly acoustic) sounds, and it’s this that comes through on Liquid Light Forms. He might have changed the means (he’s using modular synths and sequencers, instead of say an egg whisk) but the sophisticated layering is there, as is the emotional engagement. Named after the Hudson River, and two of its tributaries, the 3 long tracks glisten and shimmer, readily evoking the play of light on water. There isn’t a traditional bassline undertow as such; instead the various modulated melodies intertwine and roll across one another creating an illusion of riverine gravity. The closing track, ‘Hudson Static (Live at Shea Stadium)’ is the most ebullient here, and almost crosses into punch-the-air Emeralds territory. The lingering sonic memory of the previous tracks and Holtkamp’s poise thankfully keeps this in check. Worth the wait, this one.
Label: Self released
This first appeared at The Liminal.
Ore are Sam Underwood and Stuart Estell. They are based in Birmingham. They make intricately composed and cavernously deep doom music. With tubas (a York front-action EEb and a Besson BE983 front-action compensating EEb tuba, respectively). Granolthic is their debut album and it’s quite a thing. The title is pretty instructive in that the accumulated effect of the sounds they produce is crushing and granitic – like being slowly compressed by a throbbing slab of warm stone. And that warmth is key here, because for all of the sheer density and low-end weight of their sound, it always remains human and absorbing – not least because of the presence of so much breath, both implied and actual. This is especially apparent on the opening track ‘Sospan Ddu’ (seemingly named after a Dutch dredger) on which the sharp intakes of breath act like a doubling mechanism of the slow percussive moment of the military drums. ‘Ustvolskaya’ (named for the elusive Russian composer?) is nominally the ‘brightest’ thing here, with both tuba players using higher registers. That said, the track still feels very like an elegy. Closing epic ‘St Michael’ – the longest track at 17mins 22 – is gruelling in its way, and close in places to the doom ethic of Sunn O))). The track suddenly mutates into a harsh bellow around the 14 minute mark, sounding for all the world like someone playing an enraged bull. Which is meant as a total compliment and absolutely left me wanting more. Where the duo goes with this sound is anyone’s guess, but on this evidence it’ll be worth keeping up with.