Thursday, 17 October 2019
Album: Algida Bellezza
Label: Glacial Movements
Catalogue no: GM039
1. Vulpes Lagopus
2. Somniosus Microcephalus
3. Orcinus Orca
4. Monodon Monoceros
5. Ursus Maritimus
Alessandro Tedeschi’s Glacial Movements label has been around quite a while now, and in this latest release it’s Alessandro’s own turn to shine under the spotlight. And, as the label name suggests, it’s entirely devoted to releasing ambient music of the cold and isolationist variety, music as a soundtrack to Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Let’s face it, many of us must have wondered what it would be like to visit either of the coldest regions on earth. Additionally, both the Arctic and Antarctic continents have appeared in popular culture (Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ to name but two) and also in conspiracy theory (the hollow earth theory for one, the place insideour planet where all kinds of weirdnesses abound and having its entrance in the polar regions…). There’s no denying that it has captured the imaginations of a great many people throughout history.
But let us not forget that both Polar Circles are home to an array of purely earth-based animals, and this album concentrates on those living within the Arctic. They are: Arctic Fox (Vulpes Lagopus), Greenland Shark (Somniosus Microcephalus), Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca), Narwhal (Monodon Monoceros), and Polar Bear (Ursus Maritimus). And it would be as well to remember that, as robust and as implacable as both continents appear to the untrained eye, these creatures live within an extremely delicate and fragile environment, and it is this that makes them precious. Over and above that, Alessandro was inspired to record this album by something equally precious, delicate, and fragile – the birth of his daughter, who he would often cradle in his arm whilst recording.
What delights, then, does Algida Bellezza (which is Italian for ‘icy beauty’) hold for the listener? Beginning with ‘Vulpes Lagopus’, the stunning Arctic Fox notable for its pure white fur, we are immediately greeted with wispy ethereal tones, a cold but gentle wind whipping up little flurries of snow. In the snowfield is a small mound, a noticeable bulge in an otherwise flat landscape. We may be tempted to move on, thinking it just another oddity in an odd land, but to our surprise the mound moves, and up pops the face of an Arctic Fox, whose slumbers we’ve just disturbed. It eyes us with disdain, and then gets up and trots off, until it disappears, a white shape on a white background, an astonishingly beautiful animal merging into an equally gloriously stunning landscape. The little fox is as ethereal as its surroundings, and its presence seems as ephemeral as a snowflake’s.
‘Somniosus Microcephalus’, the Greenland Shark, is a member of the sleeper shark family, and is also the longest-living vertebrate known (in fact, females are only sexually mature when they grow longer than 13 feet, which scientists believe takes 150 years to achieve). In Netherworld’s mini-bestiary it is described via ghostly whistles that start off just on the verge of audibility before gaining in strength, becoming a slow-moving howl that is perhaps descriptive of the creature itself. The shark’s life is a slow one, lasting for up to 400 years, swimming endlessly in the frigid waters of the Arctic. Nevertheless, the icy sweep of the drones here also describe a species of majesty, a kind of imperious movement befitting a creature that outlives many of the species it shares its environment with. ‘Orcinus Orca’ is also slow, but deeply imbued with a sense of mystery. Killer whales have been studied extensively, yet there are still many things that remain elusive about them. Cold tones combined with a crawling deep bass framework floating just below the surface somehow captures the essence of these highly sociable but predatory creatures. There’s even a sense of drama unfolding, as if a pod has been caught in the act of hunting, which they do cooperatively. Above all, we get the idea that, in spite of their looks, they are efficient hunters, and that it would be wise to avoid them.
‘Monodon Monoceros’ (Narwhals) seem to appear right out of some medieval bestiary, a creature of myth and legend whose horn gave rise to the legend of the unicorn. They’re curious creatures to be sure, but also possessed of a profound mystery, a biological curio that somehow defies the natural order of things. Netherworld’s rendering appears to reach out to us from some deep distance in time, perhaps to the youth of the world, with gentle, plangent tones, almost human in nature. It sets the hairs on the back of your neck to standing up, while a deep, deep rumbling can be heard, and felt, from time to time. This is deep time indeed, or so it seems, as well as a message from the depths of the ocean. Sonorous, magisterial, and deeply magical.
Finally, we get to ‘Ursus Maritimus’, the polar bear, perhaps the most iconic Arctic species of all, and also the one animal most associated with the fragile state of its habitat due to climate concerns. It is as much of a ghost these days as the ethereal Arctic Fox is that I mentioned above. It is majestic, a visible symbol of survival in a harsh climate, a fighter, and the creature that most people would recognise. The track itself is a beautiful aurorae of harmonics and shifting percussive shuffles, moving precariously just like the floating islets of sea ice the bears use to get around and hunt. One can imagine a bear sniffing the breeze, or staring up at the twinkly lights above, or gazing at the strange dancing lights as the chords float and drift. It’s a solitary existence, here at the end of the world, but it means a measure of freedom, which the animal innately understands even it can’t articulate it to itself.
One of the strongest things I got from listening to this, apart from revelling in the beauty of these far-flung lands, is that out of sight, out of mind. These creatures, this album seemed to be telling me, are living on borrowed time, but because we don’t see them (unless it’s on a TV screen) we forget about their plight. But it’s the very achingly beautiful vistas presented by these five pieces that should remind us that, while we live within four comfortable, warm walls, these wonderful and exotic creatures are perhaps heading for extinction, and once gone they’ll be gone for good. It’s sobering to think that even while I am sitting here typing these words, half a world away, there might be a polar bear wondering when (or if) it’s going to get its next meal. Behind the staggering beauty lies a sobering reality.
Available from October 18th, it can be pre-ordered as a limited run CD in an edition of 300 from the Glacial Movements website:
or from their Bandcamp page (where there’s an ongoing special offer to get two Netherworld CDs for a special price):
Psymon Marshall 2019.
Album: Tranquilo Trasciendo
Artist: Shinji Wakasa
Label: Rottenman Editions
Catalogue no: RTE 013
3. Wood, tar, water, fire
4. A light house
6. Strix down
Rottenman Editions is a Spanish label and art studio, and this is the very first offering of theirs that I have had the opportunity of reviewing. Shinji Wakasa is a Tokyo-based artist, composer, and sound designer, and here we are presented with a selection of six of Wakasa’s ambient tracks, all very much filtered through a uniquely Japanese sensibility, one which has pervaded their culture throughout the whole length of their history. This is ambient based around responses to nature and its inherent beauty, but also there’s a sense that it’s not only the beautiful that’s the focus here but also the less comfortable aspects too. Running through most of these seemingly serene pieces there’s something of an undercurrent with a darker tone, but admittedly it’s a very subtle one, but then I think that’s part of the point – we see only the surface of nature, not the nitty gritty of its workings.
‘Rera’ starts proceedings off with echoing tones set against a backdrop of running water, which precedes tinkling iciness, like water droplets from melting icicles hitting water. Swathes of string-like chords float and weave between the pin-sharp notes, creating the sense of cold and snowbound landscapes. As glorious as that landscape may look its very frigidity is a danger: behind the delicacy of sheets of snow blanketing implacable mountainsides there’s always the threat of an avalanche. Jump into that freezing water and you may feel the insidious fingers of ice robbing you of warmth and sensation. Get lost in this environment and you will never make it out alive.
‘Hystricidae’ (or Old World Porcupine) is not quite as prickly as one would suspect, nevertheless the low drones and whistles tend to suggest that this beloved creature, for all that it looks (and sounds) cute it does have a deadly arsenal at its disposal, and that you annoy it at your peril. Those quills aren’t just for show. Fundamentally, though, they’re benign, herbivorous animals, and that’s what this particular piece is telling us: as long as we leave them be then they’re not the dangerous beasts we sometimes think they are, given the fearsome array of spines they carry with them. I suppose what it’s saying in effect is that this is what nature as a whole is – that it is benign and all-embracing but that it does have its defensive (and dark) side that we ignore to our detriment.
Lest we think that nature is all red in tooth and claw ‘Wood, tar, water, fire’ reminds us with its ringing tones and sweet drones that nature is indeed a beautiful tonic to all the miseries and woes of life and the world. The shapes and colours beguile the eyes and ears, soothing the furrowed brow, softening the worried expression, and extracting the stress, even if it’s only for a little while. The jewels of what nature gives us enchant the senses, and bring us back to our place in the world. The reverberating tones of ‘A light house’ bring us back somewhat to the untarnished reality, a deep drone infusing the background with a velvety darkness upon which the treble tones shine all the more brightly. However, the manipulation and treatment of those tones suggest a species of undertone that’s diametrically opposed to the overall effect of light the title would perhaps imply. In this case, those shining notes are a whimsy, a kind of foreground distraction to take the eyes away from what’s going on in the background.
‘Ray’ brings nature right into our cerebra, with birdsong, dripping and running water, and even a train horn. Into this come clangorous tones which appear to compete with the background story, setting up a slight tension and a dichotomous counterpoint. There are two viewpoints being outlined here – the natural and the unnatural, one the world has given us and the other that which we have foisted upon the world. It’s the competition between the two, the fight for habitat and resources allowing each side to survive. Sometimes it seems that, in our arrogance, we have forgotten that we share our environment with other living creatures that have as much, if not more, right to be here.
To round things off we have ‘Strix down’, another reverberant and ringing piece, backed by a rhythm that’s reminiscent of one of those traditional Japanese bamboo zen water fountains, perhaps indicative that everything has a rhythm, one which we would do well to take note of and live by. Water is itself a motive force, one which we’ve harnessed but one that also has the ability to destroy. In amongst these ringing tones there is perhaps a warning, a note of caution. In order to survive we must find the rhythm of life and walk to its beat, rather than attempting to impose one of our own on the world around us.
This is a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, set of compositions, one that should be listened to carefully and attentively. There is a message here, for those that care to hear – the world is a beautiful place but that we shouldn’t take it for granted. Just like a garden, in order for stability to be maintained it has to be tended and nurtured (especially a zen garden). A garden is an individual responsibility, but tending the greater garden of the world is a collective duty. This album is a rejoinder that we should shoulder that responsibility, not only by showing us what’s glorious about it but also what it’s capable of if neglected. In other words, just as we are essential to the natural order of life, nature is also essential to our way of life. Thoroughly recommended.
Available as a download, a CD in an engraved wallet made from Fabriano paper (Rosaspina 250 gr), and with ‘Ray’ & ‘Strix down’ as bonus tracks, and a 180gr black vinyl 12” in engraved sleeve made from Fabriano paper (Rosaspina 250gr), handprinted full-colour poster and photographs, and with hand-printed labels and hand-numbered. The poster is also available separately. All can be ordered on the link below:
Psymon Marshall 2019.
Sunday, 13 October 2019
Album: Misery Plan
Label: Malignant Records
Catalogue no: TumorCS128
Malignant Records is one of those labels who possess an instinctive grasp of what makes ‘good’ music, and I can tell you now that their latest release, on cassette only, is an absolute blinder. These seven tracks by Urschmerz (which translates to, appropriately enough in this case, Primal Pain) take me right back to the foundations of the industrial genre – massed noise, blistering attack that goes beyond even black/death metal, scorching nuclear blast that not only threatens to strip your skin off but comes close to actually doing so. This is what Hell would be like – industrialised slaughter and war, institutionalised torture and hate, illimitable pain and agony.
‘Hate’, the first track, doesn’t bother with any introductions, instead going for the sonic jugular right from the get-go. Pounding granular blasts, jet engines on full throttle, and a seething bassline lands right in your lap, then grabs your ears, and refuses to let go. The pace is relentlessly malevolent, never letting up until you’re overwhelmed. This is warfare, chaotic and completely unstoppable. Track, two, ‘People’, piles on more anger and agony, adding to and weighing us down with the sheer black misanthropy of it all. A cold blast of pale wind blows in from the depths of some deep pit, only to be followed by some kind of mechanical beast crawling up out of it. Its only intention is ruination, decimation, and annihilation. It feeds on our fear, our crushed bones and torn flesh, and sups on the blood that flows in gushing rivulets.
‘Deny’ is a grainy bass onslaught, pitched against what sounds like a lone flute that gradually evolves into full orchestral music and choirs, that insistent and overpowering graininess a solid wave destined to overwhelm and smother any last vestiges of ‘culture’. This is an army, not of soldiers, but of hellish nature throwing all its vast weight of seismic and granitic solidity at us. There is truly nothing we can do in the face of this aggression.
‘Birth’ comes next, a gargantuan pummelling of rumbling drone upon which rides bell-like minor tones, again with more than a whiff of chaotic roiling about it, a portrait perhaps of the cancerous thing we call life that we all so desperately cling to as if it means something. The thesis as I read it is that life has no meaning, that it is in fact just one endless sea of suffering and degradation: if it does have a meaning, then surely it’s that it’s all a sick joke played on us, and yet no one’s laughing.
‘Reject’ pummels in on a wave of old-style industrial/tribalistic drumming, a massive call to turn our backs on the lives we’ve created for ourselves in order to convince ourselves that everything we do has purpose. Slashing guitar attack weaves in and out of the pounding rhythm, adding even more fuel to a fire that’s been burning from time immemorial. Moreover, this isn’t the type of conflagration that we can subdue anytime soon. ‘Life’ follows swiftly, an atomic detonation of sound and concussion accompanied by a battalion-sized guitar assault, pulverising and grinding all into dust and atoms. This is what life is like – a behemoth intent on crushing and trampling, reducing every constituent into meaningless particulate, abrading our hopes and dreams, cursing us with pain and sorrow, and laughing at us all the while. Once everything has crumbled and turned to dust, what is left?
‘Death’ seems to be Urschmerz’s answer. If life is the question, then perhaps death is the answer, but does it solve anything? Judging by the acidic distorted chords of Urschmerz’s guitar the answer is probably that it’ll be more of the same, except on a different plane altogether. The pressure of life is seemingly increased in death, a lightless, airless ‘existence’ that subsumes the human spirit and subjects it to even more pain and agony than it endured in life. At last, of course, the punchline to the joke has been revealed – suffering is closely followed by further suffering until the substance of the soul itself dissolves into the everlasting night of No-Thing.
A bleak album then, appropriately so for a set of seven pieces delineating the reality of the bleak existence that is our lot on Earth. One cannot deny the qualities inherent in this release: the sheer power and weight of the argument, the lack of anything remotely resembling light (and by extension, hope), the utter uselessness of all that we as a species do in order to make ourselves feel and appear important. It’s a sweeping summation of homo sapiens as a species, and in seven fell swoops systematically destroys all pretentions. Having said that, this is an album that is magnificent in its transparent nihilism as well as being absolutely glorious in its complete dismissal of the feats and triumphs that mankind is wont to tout, instead laying bare the hollowness at the premise’s core. Better yet is the philosophy contained in its hidden message:
Hate People, Deny Birth, Reject Life. Death.
Available as a cassette from Malignant Records here:
It can also be obtained (along with a download version) from the Malignant Bandcamp page:
Psymon Marshall 2019.
Thursday, 10 October 2019
Album: The Cosmic Trigger: retriggered
Artist: Der Blutharsch and the Infinite Church of the Leading Hand
Catalogue no: N/A
1. Follow us Instead
3. The Cosmic Trigger
4. Flying through the Exit
5. Hold on!
6. Walking in Straight Lines
7. Sacred Mountain
8. Cosmic Trigger Mk 2
10. Terrible Place
Der Blutharsch, a follow-up project to The Moon Lay Hidden beneath a Cloud, is one of those outfits that has refused to stand still musically, evolving from its original dark ambient-tinged debut through to martial industrial and thence on to electronic experimentalism with a touch of bombast and danceability. I am very lucky indeed that Albin Julius sent me the files a head of release, as the eleven very accessible tracks on here display a number of foot-tapping and hummable tunes. I make no apologies (except perhaps to my dog. The poor thing looked at me worriedly on occasions as I wobbled precariously on my seat while ‘dancing’ to these songs) for thoroughly getting my groove on in the safety of my living room.
Starting off with a childlike voice on ‘Follow us Instead’ it soon breaks into a jumpy beat and an irresistibly loping electronic bass-line that WILL have you nodding your head along to it. Lina Baby Doll delivers the lyrics with both aplomb and a distinct sense of tongue-in-cheek humour. Then comes ‘Desire’, an Eastern-influenced song that very much reminds me of VNV Nation and others of their ilk – a formula that Julius very much bends to his own creative will, something that is perhaps more evident on the following track, ‘The Cosmic Trigger’ (anything to do with Robert Anton Wilson and his Illuminati series of books?), which exhibits a darker streak altogether, starting off with a deep drone and organ figure before opening out into a dirge-like slow-burner that I found particularly appealing. It’s enveloped in an atmosphere of menace in spite of Julius’ light vocals – perhaps that’s the reason why it works so well.
‘Flying through the Exit’ comes next, another danceable tune that reminded me of Psychic TV in so many ways (PTV were one of the reasons I got into this music in the first place). As the track progresses and thanks to Ed Ka-spell’s vocals it just gets better and better, triggering memories of my first forays into the industrial music scene nearly thirty years ago. And it’s all delivered in such a joyful way, and I absolutely loved it. The follow up, the instrumental ‘Hold Up’, had echoes of another seminal band, Kraftwerk, with its opening sequencer figure and simple beat, but with added ambient inflections. Marvellous! And then it just gets even better when it jumps straight into ‘Walking in Straight Lines’, a jumping, lolloping track mixed in with samples and howls, which then ends on repeated revving. A good way to end side one…
Side two opens with ‘Sacred Mountain’, a pounding bass- and percussion-driven monster that stomps along with considerable weight. And then we head into ‘Comic Trigger Mk 2’ , with its jerky beat and shimmery backdrop, and its repeated refrain of “Cosmic Trigger” – but it’s the simplicity that perhaps is its strong point. Then we’re treated to the psychedelic ‘Hopeless’, the phased vocals lending it an appropriate otherworldliness that fits right in with the tenor of the rest of the album.
Things slow down somewhat with ‘Terrible Place’, a beautiful harmonic piece that sinuously sways and hypnotises. And finally, we get to the final piece, ‘Zero’, its opening sirens wailing and oscillating with a menacingly slow urgency. And then, it fades into percussion and chiming, before petering out to zero.
There is something I will apologise for after all: the inadequacy of my descriptions when it comes to delineating the delights on this album. There’s so much going on here, and it expresses itself through a broad spectrum of moods without ever once betraying its own core style. It ranges through the humorous and uplifting, to the dark and dank, and on into painfully but beautifully sad. On top of that it’s an extremely accessible album, with very danceable rhythms and catchy hooks, but this isn’t a collection of music that exudes sweetness and light either. A streak of slyness and acidic wit runs through its entire length, which keeps things from it falling into being just another electronic ‘pop’ album and takes it somewhere completely different. It’s not hard to work out that I loved this album.
Out on December 12th, it is now available to pre-order on Bandcamp, in three versions: CD, Golden 12” vinyl, and traditional Black 12” vinyl – link here:
Psymom Marshall 2019.
Album: Sepulchral Blessing
Label: Cyclic Law
Catalogue no: 144th Cycle
1. Demonic Integration
2. Insorcist Will
3. Tiamat Skin
4. Angra Mainyu
5. Apocryphal Truth
6. Sepulchral Blessing
Without fear of exaggeration on my part, I can honestly say that ever since I returned to reviewing I’ve been very impressed with the quality and consistency of Fredric Arbour’s Cyclic Law label. Arbour, it appears, has a unique ability to zone in on industrial ambient acts that offer such music that goes beyond the normal run of the mill. And this latest release from Italy’s CLAVICVLA, available to pre-order now on the label website and Bandcamp (see links below), digs deeply into a wellspring of unwholesome inspiration and returns with some black ambient that truly uncovers the darkness dwelling in the hearts of both the world and mankind. The archaeology of civilisation has unearthed the ugly truth of humanity, and the earth has also yielded the monsters that once walked upon its surface – somehow, one feels there’s a link there, fanciful perhaps, but from what did we inherit our DNA in the first place?
‘Demonic Integration’ opens the account, and brings forth deep drones lifted from the very bowels of the earth, perhaps creatures or entities excavated from the musty pages of age-old grimoires, conjured by those who wish only the return of unmanifest chaos and darkness. Seismic rumbles and quakes accompany the arrival of archetypes made real, as howlings torn from the deeps swirl in sympathy at the disruption of nature. ‘Insorcist Will’, growls and mutters from within the darkness of the Evocation Chamber, as forms materialise out of the base matter of blood, mutilated sacrificial flesh, crushed bone, and impure motivations, and are given life by the essences of rare incenses. It is here that the pitch black takes on movement, barely seen or heard but keenly felt, as sharp and acridly pungent as the charnel house.
And perhaps what has been manifested is a creature from legend, the personification of primordial chaos, a beast of fearsome reputation, Tiamat herself. In ‘Tiamat Skin’ we come face to face with her, a terrifying apparition scaled in impenetrable hide, impervious to the weapons of man, immune to the entreaties of mere humans, and for whom mercy is a weakness. She is chaos incarnate, an agent of subversion, and destruction. The world crumbles as she wreaks havoc, laying low the mighty and lowly simultaneously, caring not for the light, only the darkness. Her growls and snarls shake the very foundations of the reality we have built around ourselves. Moreover, it means nothing to her.
Accompanying her is ‘Angra Mainyu’, the Zororastrian (Persian) spirit of utter destruction, the principle of carnage and extermination, whose home is night and maleficence, and whose polar opposite is day and enlightenment. Rumbles and growls, deep subterranean drones, and voices tinged with evil and antipathy, roil and coil around each other, combining their strengths and their malice and resentment. ‘Apocryphal Truth’ perhaps alludes to the real truth behind reality in general, and humanity in particular, as it is our base natures that define us after all – a fact that many are only too willing to shy away from. We are not, perhaps, creatures of light struggling to better ourselves or to ascend to our true spiritual place, but instead we are forever destined to remain mired in matter and material evil. That’s the lie that’s been told to us ever since we achieved self-consciousness, and this is the ugly truth being revealed.
‘Sepulchral Blessings’ is, figuratively and literally, the end of our journey. Figuratively, because it signals that death has embraced us and taken us into the folds of its voluminous robes, and that it has released us from the pain and fear of untimely destruction, and literally, because this is the last track on the album, a summation of all that has gone on before. It begins quietly enough, with an empty place where we seem to be floating, no longer engaged in the cares and concerns of life: over time it transforms, the seeming peace metamorphosing into a less salubrious state, one where the stirrings of an unhallowed existence begin to allow themselves to be felt and heard. Sheets of turbulent nuclear static, the stuff of the stars themselves, searingly hot and ever-moving, tear and rend without cease. This is the nightmare of humanity, the place we have called Hades, Sheol, Hell, or any number of other names in our history, but it is far more terrible than anything we could have imagined. This is our ultimate destiny, the destination we were always meant to go to from the very beginning.
This is a mighty debut, if debut it is – a thoroughly dark, miserable, and pitch black set of hymns to the baser nature of the universe, of all who reside in it, and the reality in which we find ourselves. It couldn’t be blacker if it tried – perhaps it would be better if we called it, to coin a phrase, ‘Blacker than Black’. Black is the absence of light – this is the absence of everything. This is an infinite void, completely devoid of light, hope, or a shred of matter; an abyss that, if it stared back at you, would mean instant annihilation.
Available in three versions: CD (500 copies), 12” black vinyl (300 copies), and digital download. Pre-order your copy from:
Psymon Marshall 2019.
Album: Full Drone Attack
Artist: SEPL (Scorched Earth Policy Lab)
Catalogue no: N/A
1. Broken (Reprocessed)
2. Dull (Reprocessed)
3. Surface (Reprocessed)
4. Soul-Bender (Reprocessed)
The best way to describe these four slabs of sound is minimalist drone ambient textures that carry with them immense weight and power, plus expressive of both light and dark, and the undeniable ability to evoke moods. Not only that but each piece is based around a single species of drone, manipulated yes, but each is allowed to evolve in a very natural way. These four explorations and experiments are exercises in how drones can be as descriptive as any kind of music, except that they work on a much more primitive level, in that our responses to them are visceral. And, I think, drone elicits instant responses, because it goes straight to a level that I can only tag as ‘spiritual’.
‘Broken (Reprocessed)’, our first track, is absolutely gargantuan in size, a flying machine of enormous proportions gliding low over a populated area, using its sheer size and the noise it generates to threaten and intimidate. One can easily imagine a vessel of this kind, flying in at a speed so slow that it looks as if it’s barely able to stay up there in the sky. The engines produce a grainy machine growl that insinuates itself into every pore and cell of the body, shaking bones and liquefying organs. Couple that with its ability to almost completely blot out the sun, casting a densely black shadow on all below, and it’s easy to see the terror it can instil.
‘Dull (Reprocessed)’ is anything but, an oscillating mechanical drone that begins quite closed off in some ways, but gradually opens out into a full fractal bloom, lifting itself higher and higher. It takes the listener with it on its upward journey, elevating them through the layers of atmosphere, past the clouds, and into a pristinely cold but unaffected and unpolluted space. We’re right on the edge between earth and the unending void of the universe ‘out there’, and we can see that the azure blue we’re used to seeing is beginning to give way to a much darker hue, and below us we can see the curve of the world and the tiny shapes of the continents, while clouds majestically and slowly move on their mysterious journeys across the skies.
And SEPL does another about turn, as ‘Surface (Reprocessed)’ brings us a blast of feral noise, untameable and unstoppable. It’s a scirroco wind, burning hot and full of rasping, abrasive particles, ready to shred skin and set fire to vegetation. It cuts deeply into and blackens everything it passes over, leaving nothing but wounds and burns in its wake. The drones lighten up once again for ‘Soul-Bender (Reprocessed)’ but admittedly not by much. This is machine whirr and whine, invested with a malign intention behind it. This is one of those gale force winds that not only buffets and rocks you on your feet but also lets its chill fingers go right through you to search out every single weakness in you it can find. This is the malefic motivation behind its manifestation – to find those weaknesses and crush them, leaving behind a quivering husk. The soul is nothing to this kind of barrage: the very insubstantiality of this wind means it is equal to the nature of the soul and therefore it can get purchase on it. Perhaps it won’t be able to wrench it out completely, but it can most definitely twist it to its own nefarious ends.
What we have here then is a broad canvas of drone moods, essentially a quadrilogy of sonic paintings reflecting the innate possibilities of sound in general and drones in particular. In much the same that minimalist abstract art (I am thinking of Rothko’s monumental canvases here) can evoke particular responses so too can what to most people would appear to be monotonic notes. In this case, there are so many nuances here that they form a kind of narrative, a guidebook on how to go about exploring the basis of drone sound, how it affects us, and how we as musicians can manipulate it to produce specific effects. I think that SEPL have only just dunked their big toe into the waters of drone, and that there’s a lot more to come from this project. Good stuff.
Available as a digital download from here:
Psymon Marshall 2019.
Album: Witchcraft and Black Magic in the United Kingdom
Label: Eighth Tower Records
Catalogue no: ETR022
1. Grey Frequency – Elegy for Vinegar Tom
2. Rapoon – The Village
3. Howlround – Crypt of St. John
4. Satori – Hag of Hair
5. Daniel Williams – Do you Believe in Witches
6. Michael Bonaventure – Coronach
7. Sky High Diamonds – The Discoverer
8. Howlround – Peck in the Crown
9. Daniel Williams – You can do Almost Anything you Want with Them
It’s now hard to imagine that there was a time, about 350 years ago, when the fear of witches and magicians was very real in Britain, reaching its apogee in the 17th century when the likes of misogynist Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins went roaming across the land in search of ‘witches’ and securing their conviction, mostly through highly dubious means. These victims of the witch hunts and trials were all probably innocent, but in those highly-charged times, the church had a much more pre-eminent role in the life of the populace (most of whom were illiterate and ignorant). Those two terms, witchcraft and black magic, were, in the minds of most people, interchangeable and even though we are more enlightened these days, there are still those who believe that the two practices are the same thing (in fact, the last woman convicted of witchcraft was prosecuted during the last war, and the Witchcraft Act was only repealed in 1951 in the UK).
Raffaele Pezzella’s Eight Tower Records here presents us with a set of nine pieces based around the general theme of British witchcraft and black magic. And we get stuck right in with Grey Frequency’s ‘Elegy for Vinegar Tom’; Vinegar Tom is the name of a 1976 play and also the name of a cat familiar character within the play, and was written to explore the role unequal gender politics played in both the 17th century trials and 20th century women. It begins with supernatural howling and scratching, all the while a ringing tone haunts the background. The atmosphere here is one of forbidden rites performed in murky forests by the light of the moon, a classic image, a rite of calling upon nature in service to man and woman. Gently it fades into magnificent ambient pastoral tones, reminding us of witchcraft’s natural connections.
Robin Storey’s Rapoon bring us an uncharacteristically un-Rapoon-like track, distant church bells into which a series of plucked string tones intercede. This apparently was inspired by an incident in Story’s younger years, and judging by its haunting overtones it must have affected him greatly. Its sheer simplicity is what makes this so effective, aided and abetted by a stark cello figure, and I genuinely felt shivers at its ghostly sparseness. It gets into your system and refuses to let go, and one can only shiver at what the young Storey must have experienced to produce such a wonderfully evocative track.
Howlround’s ‘Crypt of St. John’ whistles in on cold winds that wrap themselves around your body, and grip you with icy fingers. Creatures not of this world fly about your ears, caterwauling and chirruping, with the intent of driving you mad with their constant noise. Have you wronged someone lately? Or have you dared to accuse someone of practising witchcraft? Perhaps you have now been caught in the web of their curse…and the only way you’ll ever escape their malign intentions are through either the bliss of madness or death.
‘Hag of Hair’ conjures up the usual stereotypical depictions of witches, ugly of visage and demeanour, living isolated lives in lonely stone cottages, furtively and secretively brewing up potions, and casting spells for the lovelorn and curses upon enemies. The point is that these images were malicious methods of controlling women: a good Christian woman would be meek whilst a headstrong one would obviously be an agent of the devil. Until fairly recently this was the sole archetype we possessed of the witch in popular culture, the stuff of children’s nightmares. Satori’s piece utilises low rumbles and engine whines to create an atmosphere that plays on that propagandistic perception and how it purposefully demeaned women.
Daniel William’s ‘Do you Believe in Witches?’ is next: a simple enough question – but, it has very important consequences, not least the cognitive dissonance the traditional image of what a witch ‘is’ would elicit today. In former centuries there would have been no such dissonance – witches and all their powers were real. The track begins with glitchy looping before a voice asks “Do you burn them witches?”, after which noisy swirls and ringing howls battle for supremacy, the latter winning out. It drifts into slight atonality, suggesting that very cognitive dissonance we feel at the mindset of our ancestors, and organ tones also suggest the part that the church played in condemning thousands of innocent women to a brutal death.
Michael Bonaventure continues the organ theme on ‘Coronach’, beginning with substantial bass drones that resonate through the solar plexus, leading to sawing echoes and reverberations. It builds into a lament of quiet power, a heartfelt dirge for someone who was perhaps a much-loved member of a community, who was maliciously accused of something they didn’t do, perhaps by a jealous neighbour or suitor. (A coronach is a Scottish song of mourning for the dead, as in Sir Walter Scott’s Legend of Montrose. This possesses a real sense of death unlooked for, due to the executioner’s rope, and yet another victim is mourned.) It’s hauntingly beautiful, a sad statement of the terror of the supernatural and its agents, and the consequences of being accused, whether rightly or wrongly.
‘The Discoverer’ is also haunting, but for entirely different reasons. Here, Sky High Diamonds use the accounts of ‘accusations’ against so-called witches, all of which beggar belief, the voices set against sold winds and howls. We marvel at the gullibility of these people, but simultaneously understand that in some cases the accusations were deflections to lead suspicion away from the accuser and a way of surviving.
Howlround make a second appearance in the form of ‘Peck in the Crown’, a watery, bubbling, and whispering track, perhaps the haunting voices of those drowned while being ducked to see if they were witches – if they were witches they would float, but if they drowned they were innocent. That was quite the logic eh?
Finally, Daniel Williams also makes a return, with ‘You can do Almost anything you Want with Them’, a chilling statement if ever there was one. This consists of hissy recordings of two male voices having a discussion, before tinkling tones floating on a whispering carpet of susurrating wind takes over along with guitar. Those winds seem to carry the souls of the victims of a consensual madness into a brighter tomorrow, assured that it was the insanity of men that caused their demise.
This is something of a testament, to the delusion of crowds and to the madness of frightened men. Women were seen as creatures to be controlled, chattels even, and any sign of independence was seen as a sign of the Devil, and anathema to the will of God. This is also a memorial, a remembrance to all those who were caught up in all the insanity and came off on the losing side, no matter how abominable it sounds to us now. A wonderful selection of piece, all united under a common theme, with an aesthetic that flows like a river between them all. Even though these acts were invited to participate and worked individually, they have created a kind of magic of their own – a compilation that deserves a wide audience and a place in everyone’s collection.
Available as a download and a limited CD from the Eighth Tower Records Bandcamp site:
Psymon Marshall 2019.