PanAmerican - Quiet City
With Quiet City, his fourth full-length release as PanAmerican for Kranky, Mark Nelson delivers another elegiac exploration of the subtle city spaces. Quiet City is a crossroads of sorts, a meeting of the sparse electronics of his previous two records with the live instrumentation strewn throughout his first release. Nelson's minimalism is an attempt to strip down the blustering beats of techno and the resounding echo of dub into granular whispers of sound.
The upright bass of "Shining Book" is barely there, just the faintest pluck of sub-sonic weight against your spine. "Inside Elevation" crackles with dust and distant thunderheads while a Morricone-style guitar slowly falls apart. A harmonica sings a sad lament to the rising tide of dust that sweeps through abandoned streets. The guitar comes back to life for "Skylight" and brings with it a rhythm section that blows in like a tumbleweed rolling through town. Steven Hess and David Crawford provide drums and flugelhorn for "Het Volk," and Hess' drumwork adds a slow rotation to Crawford's wandering brass like the endless thrum of tires against grooved pavement. The static crackle of "Wing" seems almost like an afterthought or a transmission artifact against the elongated glissando tones or the tiny rustle of mechanical parts. This is all part of Nelson's immense charm as PanAmerican: how he manages to take minute elements of sound, remove another layer as if by the delicate abrasion of fine-grained sandpaper, and arrange all the pieces in a manner which turns them into a carefully arranged peregrination of sound.
He even sings on three tracks -- "Begin," "Shining Book," and "Skylight" -- evoking 360 Business / 360 Bypass where he enlisted the aid of Mimi Parker (from Low) for vocals. His nearly unintelligible voice is the faltering murmur of a sleepy preacher drifting off in the rectory while he awaits the eventual arrival of his flock. Think Windy & Carl meets Low meets Pole. Mark Nelson's work has always evoked cerebral dreams of late night driving -- the fading lights of the city falling away behind you, the endless quiet expanse of the countryside stretched out ahead of you (an impression gorgeously summed up with "Lights of Little Towns," the closing track of Quiet City). PanAmerican always leaves me with a sense of nostalgia for the restful silence of the very early morning hours when the glow from the mercury vapor lights is playing firefly to the rose and orange line that is starting to build on the horizon. Nelson went out and shot some video, and includes an album-length video montage on DVD for Quiet City. Not surprisingly, the short films are close to what you imagine from the music. Well, except for the polar bears. I wasn't expecting to see polar bears swimming through water. That was a treat.
PanAmerican - The River Made No Sound
Mark Nelson returns with another extraordinary exploration of sonic spaces with his new PanAmerican record, The River Made No Sound. Eschewing the languid vistas which filled his last record (the brilliant 360 Business / 360 Bypass) for even more minimal structures, The River Made No Sound captures Nelson's investigations of the glitch spaces.
The operative words here are "sparse" and "distance." Working from his home studio, Nelson creates haunting electronic environments which are stylized renditions of natural landscapes. "Plains" revolves around a piano melody, a warm series of chords which float over a bed of crackling static and distant digital clicks. Equal parts warm German-style reverb dub (think Pole) and cold Scandinavian ambience (think the spooky side of the Cold Meat Industry label), "Plains" evokes an empty landscape, scoured by wind and filled with ghosts. "For a Running Dog" captures the heartbeat of the animal, a steady pulse driving the track in very much a Cologne-style groove. Whispering over this constant beat is a tonal atmosphere straight off Nelson's recent 12-inch for BSI Records. There are changes and there are constants; Nelson operates in a realm of memory and motion, looking back and moving forward.
"Settled" is the first track that is fully ensconced in the PanAmerican of the past. Built around a location recording of a large space filled with people (a train station maybe, the distant squeal of steel on steel behind the hubbub of moving voices and the flat crack of loudspeaker announcements), Nelson adds a plaintive melody, an underbelly of beat textures and the expansive drone which has become emblematic of his approach to atmospheres. "Red Line" rattles around for awhile, the clatter and snap of metal implements finally falling into place, and the track becomes a fast ride down the minimal techno expressway. "Two-sided" continues that minimal beat feeling -- a calm repetition that would not be out of place on a Thomas Brinkmann record -- but the drift throughout is something out of an Angelo Badalamenti score.
"Place names" is a summation of the history and the intent here: those same drifting tones and melodies, the distant hint of motion beyond the horizon, the tiny articulated click of machinery, static, the resolute reverberation of soft beats. Mark Nelson knows the way to the emotional core of your brain, knows how to reach through your ears and directly touch the synapses in your head. He tugs at your sense of memory, at the dimly remembered places you once visited. He brings landscapes back to you, revitalizes dreams of dust and wind, and makes you ache for the solitude and peace of the long horizon. PanAmerican records always make me regret having moved to the city.
Peccatum - Lost in Reverie
One of the great tragic moments in Western literature is the drowning of Ophelia in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. Spurned by the Danish prince for reasons she cannot fathom, Ophelia falls into an oubliette of despair. Abandoned by love, she casts herself into the river. The image of the desolate girl lost under the water is an enduring images of the hazards of the Romantic Ideal: love kills as surely as poison or a sword. Peccatum's Lost in Reverie follows Ophelia into the water, caught up in the tangled web of unfinished garlands and her floating hair.
Peccatum is the project of Ihriel and Ihsahn, Norwegian children of the black symphonic metal scene whose previous entry in the orchestral noir genre was the stunning Iter.viator (under Ihriel's nom de plume, Star of Ash). Lost in Reverie begins with the fading thoughts of Ophelia as she slips into the stream and then dissolves itself into an avant-garde meditation on the dissolution of thought, hope, spirit, and unrequited love. Peccatum uses orchestral strings, lachrymose arias, guttural black metal voices, cacophonous bursts of chaotic instrumentation, delicate piano melodies, bombastic guitar breakdowns: the list gets absurdly endless. Lost in Reverie captures the fading confusion of thought and emotion as the heart slows to a dead stop. "Swift chill of desolation," Ihriel sings in the dying moments of "Desolate Ever After," "and the sadness affixes itself to decay."
"In the Bodiless Heart" revolves in an infinite whirlpool where the heart still exists as Idea, as a beating object that fuels desire, but without any physical body to which it can attach this passion. "He cannot see where the lights END / Where he ENDS / Or if they know where they END," Ihsahn sings in the electric chorus. The foundation of "In the Bodiless Heart" is an acoustic piece for guitar, bass, and sparse drum kit and, while the chorus is a growling, electrified waterspout, the piece moves like gentle water in an eternal circle, cycling back on its itself with its energies unrealized.
In direct contrast is "Parasite My Heart" which explodes in a black metal tornado (propelled into existence by Ihsahn's old school Emperor-style howl). "Corrupted desolation / The sound of glass between teeth / I belch the suicide of guilt." And, as the fury breaks and the song becomes a slow lament with Ihriel and a grand piano, you understand that the blast of sound at the beginning of the song is the fury of a heart that has been betrayed, that has been cast aside like a used fruit rind. "Naked body on display," Ihriel sings mournfully, "Parasite my heart / and the immensity where it dies." If "In the Bodiless Heart" was the external vision of the lost heart disappearing beneath the endless river of souls, then "Parasite My Heart" is the howl of unrequited fury which keeps it alive even as the body decays and dies. Ihsahn's naked howl returns in "Black Star," the ultimate resting place for all fading dreams and desires, the place where his cries are the terminal gasp of a fading dream. Ihriel's gentle croon -- "I am the Black Star / Hostess of your dead heart's hymn" -- is the dark embrace that enfolds the lost soul as the final chamber fills and -- gone, gone, gone -- the love is finally extinguished. ("Night is within me / And I am here in your arms," Ihriel sings on the final track of the record, "The Banks Of This River Is Night.")
Ihsahn and Ihriel are genre-busting, cutting themselves free of the constraints of modern classifications in order to fully explore the melancholia of death and the liquid despair of lost hope. "The swimmer can swim / A thousand lengths," sings Ihsahn in "Veils of Blue," "clockwise and reverse / I cannot swim in you." The duo trade off lyrical phrases like poet and muse talking back and forth, like loved and lover whispering back and forth. "Veils of Blue" inhabits the same underwater grotto lounge space of "In the Bodiless Heart," and if Ihsahn is the crooner on stage, then Ihriel haunts the wings and the fly space above the stage, lost in the lichen covered rocks of the cavern, her voice an echoing wail.
Ophelia dies off-stage, and her death is overshadowed by the aftermath of the watery suicide: her death pushes Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel and allows Claudius the opportunity to have the young man slay his son-in-law with impunity. It becomes just a cause for the gory end, a twist of the key which unlocks the door for Death to claim everyone. But, as Ihsahn and Ihriel remind us through Lost in Reverie, Ophelia (like all of us) loved -- desperately, earnestly, completely -- and, with that love spurned and rejected, she found there was nothing left to keep her afloat. Despair is not naturally buoyant and sometimes it is a long way to the bottom of the river. All the way down, your heart keeps circulating hope and desire; your heart keeps feeling until it beats no longer. Lost in Reverie is the sound of love drowning.
Gertrude: ...Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Laertes: Alas, then she is drown'd?
Gertrude: Drown'd, drown'd.
Laertes: Too much water has thou, poor Ophelia.
Porter Ricks/Techno Animal - Symbiotics
There are two ways to hear echoes underwater at ten kilometers down. The first requires a titanium-plated bathysphere and a research vessel capable of anchoring itself over the Marianas Trench and lowering your listening station down to into that vast slit in the earth. Not to mention the exorbitant cost of the gear that will allow you to be able to record the sluggish sound waves which percolate through that infinite darkness at the bottom of the sea. I mean, if you've got the time and capital, by all means, go right ahead and launch this expedition. But, if you are a little short on either, there is always option two: pick up the Porter Ricks and Techno Animal collaboration called Symbiotics.
Coming from two ends of the European dub resurgence of the last decade, Porter Ricks and Techno Animal have injected the traditional dub sound with a manic, bio-mechanical virus. Porter Ricks (the long echo duo of Andy Mellwig and Thomas Koner) had put out a number of 12" at this point, helping to cement the Basic Channel sound which would open the gates for an entire generation of German laptop junkies to reconstruct echoes around static and silence; whereas the approach of Techno Animal (the sonic ricochet between Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick) was more medical and mechanical -- breaking apart the dub with clinical precision in order to discover just where the echo lay. Symbiotics was meant to be a true collaborative effort, but what came to be was a sharing of source material. Porter Ricks provided elongated instances of time to Techno Animal, and the Animal in return gave Ricks a handful of their sterilized sound waves. The symbiosis of the title is the resultant soundscapes which sound like both and neither -- the evolutionary next generation of sound to which you have no defenses.
It is deep, dark, watery dub, beats and soundscapes that capture the movement of large masses of water under extreme pressure. "Polytoxic 1" and "Polytoxic 2" are Porter Ricks treatments -- full of the deep richness of the black water, propelled by the insistent hiss of static signals. These treatments will destroy an oscilloscope with the writhing motion of their heavy tread. Alternating between these two are the Techno Animal creations of "Hydrozoid" and "Bio-Morphium," fiercer creatures who find your tiny bathysphere a delectable treat, and the constant pounding you hear are the creatures' vast skulls slamming again and again into the side of your metal tomb. The equipment in your vessels shrieks and sparks and cowers in fear.
After the opening assault and tramua of the descent, Porter Ricks returns with "Phosphoric," the first soundtrack delivered directly from the bottom of the trench -- the initial recordings of what you will hear after your small, banged-up craft has landed in the mud. It is nine minutes of complete vastness, dark open spaces filled with the sound of water breathing and venting. The heavy fluid around you gurgles and chatters and rumbles. You certainly can't see anything at these depths; all you can do is listen, and what you hear is the sound of monsters moving through the ink.
I wonder what kind of world flourishes flourishes ten kilometers underwater, and I know that I, small sight-dependent mammal that I am, will be utterly lost in that darkness. I will have to evolve and learn to listen. It really is a matter of symbiosis. Porter Ricks and Techno Animal will teach you; they will teach you how to survive at these depths, how to hear the life which thrives in these dark waters.
Propergol - East, Borne on the Naked Backs of Murdered Men
Chapter Five of Objective-Subjective's sonic recreation of Alan Moore's The Watchmen belongs to Propergol. Titled "East, Borne on the Naked Backs of Murdered Men," this twenty minute slice of sonic cinematics opens with street noises and the distant laughter of children playing. Naturally, things get a bit darker within minutes as a woman's voice breaks through the twisting ambience to ask: "What are you doing?"
Whirled through a time-lapse summary of the early evening on a city street corner, the mood and the light becomes darker as the day vanishes and the nocturnal creatures begin to emerge from their crevasses. The mood is definitely Rorschach's -- "mon visage" -- bleak impression of the gritty present, a city held captive by its own fear and doubt.
About ten minutes in, the mood darkens again as the police arrive -- "we've got this building surrounded!" -- and the soundtrack becames darker and denser as ominous rumblings and the seismic shift of heavy weights begin to punctuate the scattered street noise. "East, Borne on the Naked Backs of Murdered Men" becomes claustrophobic as tensions -- both of the police and the trapped criminals -- mount, the ever-tightening circumstances become more and more oppressive. Well, except for the piano interlude near the fourteen minute mark, but that's only to mark the ultimate realization made by both sides that they cannot walk away from this conflict. As police dispatchers frantically try to cordon off the afflicted city block, the battle is joined and the music becomes a sizzling, snarling conflagration of shouted voices and power electronics.
The "Watchmen" series is scheduled for twelve chapters with twelve artists each having twenty minutes to recreate their chapter of Moore's The Watchmen. Each mini-CD is limited and, if Propergol's contribution is any standard by which to measure the others, is worth your time, especially if you are familiar with the graphic novel. I'm hooked.
- P -
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Publications I've Written For
- Eraldo Bernocchi
- Fields of the Nephilim
- Peter Gabriel
- Chris Randall
- This Morn' Omina