Wednesday, 11 December 2019

SPK - Zamia Lehmanni (Songs of Byzantine Flowers).

Album: Zamia Lehmanni (Songs of Byzantine Flowers)
Artist: SPK
Label: Cold Spring Records
Catalogue no: CSR274CD/LP

     1.      Invocation to Secular Heresies
     2.      Palms Crossed in Sorrow
     3.      Romanz in Moll
     4.      In the Dying Moments
     5.      In Flagrante Delicto (Introduction)
     6.      In Flagrante Delicto
     7.      Alocasia Metallica
     8.      Necropolis
     9.      The Garden of Earthly Delights
   10.  The Doctrine of Eternal Ice (CD only)

SPK, along with Coil (whose album, Stolen & Contaminated Songs, has also been reissued by Cold Spring Records and which I reviewed very recently), can be considered as the wellspring of inspiration behind many projects that came to define the early to mid-period industrial music scene. This seminal album was originally released on Side Effects Records all the way back in 1985, and listening to it now it’s apparent that, as with Coil’s album, it has lost none of its grandeur and scale. This, according to the blurb, was something of a transitional period for main man Graeme Revell, in that this was a solo effort rather than a group one, and here we see the prognostications of his later soundtrack work. In spite of those signposts pointing to his future direction, however, there are still elements of the original spark which ignited it all, albeit stripped back and created to serve the specifics of the pieces in question. But, as the blurb also points out, when Revell was recording this he was of the opinion that industrial music had ossified and was going nowhere, and so in these pieces he sought to reveal the next step in the evolution of the genre – and the ubiquity of the style and its offshoots today are testament to his vision. And, it should be noted, the reissue has received the benefit of remastering and the approval of Revell himself, who also wrote the liner notes.

This could definitely be classed as a timely reissue, as it will not only introduce a new generation to Revell’s music but will also save you quite a sum of money in the process. I looked on eBay and saw that there’s an original vinyl copy for sale that, with postage, is going for over $100. Save yourself the money and pre-order this instead – even the vinyl versions on offer (see below) are cheaper and probably of better quality.

In resonance with the album’s title much of it is shot through with distinctly Eastern flavours, starting with ‘Invocation to Secular Heresies’, a fanfare of an opener that states its intentions for what follows right from the get go. The time-worn ruins of ancient Byzantium appear to rise up hauntingly, a stark reminder of what had once been a glittering jewel of a city and the centre of the known world for 1100 years. A looping, slightly distorted voice ululates and chants against a backdrop of trumpet blasts and brooding bass drones along with the massed voices of a male choir. It’s powerful and stirring stuff, to be sure, entirely apposite of the Byzantine Empire at its height, an empire that stretched from the mouth of the Black Sea and into Asia Minor and downwards through Jerusalem and thence to Egypt, even encompassing southern Spain, Italy, and Greece at its most westerly extent. It speaks of mighty armies clashing, and citizens of the glorious city of Constantinople standing proudly at the cultural and religious centre of the pre-medieval world.

‘Palms Crossed in Sorrow’ is at once full of mystery and grandeur, and yet it comes from a place deeply subterranean and cacophonous. It speaks of the greatest mystery of all – the mystery of the afterlife, and our relationship to it. This isn’t as jarring as it may appear on the surface – Constantinople later became one of the major nexuses of Christian power, eclipsing that of Rome itself for a time and was also the birthplace of Orthodox Christianity. Indeed, the listener gets a glimpse of its future pre-eminence with the inclusion of ritual singing and musical accompaniment, perhaps some species of song to say farewell the dear departed. ‘Romanz in Moll’ brings us echoes of the industrial with stark metallic percussion, but blended with sweeping chords and piano passages, wrapped up in classical phrasings. It is indeed romantic, yet whatever romance it’s meant to celebrate is bathed in darkness.

‘In the Dying Moments’ announces itself with howls and whines, before tribal drumming comes in to provide a backdrop to a stalking, menacing low bass ‘melody’ accompanied by voices. This is the intersection between life and death, that subtle shift between material being and loss of conscious being, the miasmic transition point in between the light and the dark. It’s turbulent and unsettling, giving rise to the notion that perhaps our ideas of what lies beyond this plane are completely wrong. For the duration we appear to be blanketed in obfuscation and darkness, where nothing is clearly defined and everything is elusive.

‘In Flagrante Delicto Intro’ (which means something along the lines ‘caught red-handed’) floats in on gossamer wings of sorrow made from the dust of millennia, with sustained string chords that rise and fall like all the ancient civilisations did, building and then falling away. ‘In Flagrante Delicto’ proper begins with a slow, deep bass throbbing, creating the bedrock for more mournful, dirge-like strings, but this time the atmosphere is aided by female voices singing, a subterranean operatic swelling of emotion and regret. It feels like something has been lost, that what was once something powerful and majestic has now been laid low, and is gone, never to be seen again.

‘Alocasio Metallica’ initially appears to be a complete contrast, shimmering brightly and resonantly, but if one listens carefully there’s melancholy and sorrow here too, the voice and flute belying the instrumentation. Even so, it eventually explodes into frantic drumming, almost as if it’s attempting to dispel the prevailing atmosphere, in an effort to drive away the darkness, but even that subsides into the original bell-like resonances the piece opened with. Listening to it one most definitely reached back to the ‘industrial’ of the early period, to a time when I was being exposed to new sounds and new sonic architectures. ‘Necropolis’ is next, and it prefigures the genre of dark ambient in a massive way, dark orchestral chords, sweeping planes of sound that propel a lone violin along, and it’s easy to see why this is such an aptly titled piece. One can easily imagine walking through avenues of mausolea memorialising people long gone, the heroes and the villains, all the great and good, and the ordinary unremembered masses all in one place. Yet there is dignity here too, saying that all lives are worth celebrating in however small a way.  

Lastly, for the vinyl versions anyway, is ‘The Garden of Earthly Delight’, a psychedelic tapestry of sound and colour, swirling and whirling, cacophonous and yet sweet in its own way. Creation is running riot here, with flora and fauna proliferating at an exponential rate of knots: some ideas will take hold, whilst others will fold back on themselves and disappear, finding their brief time running into a dead end.

For those who purchase the CD, you get an extra track, ‘The Doctrine of Eternal Ice’. Cold wintry blasts introduce this piece, with sharp whistles and reverberations, echoes of cracking and shattering ice, which all eventually morph into a weird beat-driven piece descriptive of vast ice-caverns and broad plains covered in nothing but snow. It appears barren, and yet there are hints that there’s life even here. It remains hidden and mostly undetected, simply as a result of its harsh environment. The thing is, though, because we can’t see what’s actually out there, our imaginations are wont to fill in the blanks, and in the process create all manner of wild and wonderful (and dangerous) creatures, all seemingly hell-bent on hunting us. The truth is probably more prosaic, but until we see with our own eyes, we will think otherwise.

I have to admit that I struggled to review this album, certainly not because I didn’t like it (quite the opposite), but simply because there’s so much going on here. Ideas and concepts tumble over each other rapidly: in the end I had to go by first impressions and flow with those. These pieces are simultaneously simple yet complex, almost like musical Mandelbrot sets: the further you delve into each piece, the more you see and the more you realise and understand. This isn’t an album one can cursorily listen to – multiple hearings are mandated here in order to fully grasp Revell’s mastery. If you need to buy only two essential albums this year, then this one alongside Coil’s Stolen & Contaminated Songs are the ones you should purchase.

Available from 11th December in two vinyl versions: either in standard black form or in a limited edition gold version of 500. There’s also a CD in a 6-panel digipack. All versions can be purchased here:

Psymon Marshall 2019.

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