From Wolf Eyes To Caretaker: A New Column Exploring Musical Extremes
, October 12th, 2009 08:47
Frances Morgan starts her new column today, delving into the world of noise, drone, jazz and whatever else takes her fancy. Photograph courtesy Maria Jefferis/shot2bits.net
Wolf Eyes live in 2006
So there are these two rules I decide to try to stick to. One is not to let one release overshadow the rest in the pile; the second is to avoid getting too allusive about autumn. Perhaps this last is a hangover from editing a print monthly, in which your elegant prose about snow reads a bit funny when it hits the shelves four weeks into spring sunshine. But it's also a sense that this season of restless ghosts and darkening days is too easy to pattern certain sounds onto, especially those of drone, flutter, scrape and scream.
I don't know. I am watching glass/mouth/electronics artist Justice Yeldham when I decide this and he makes me feel perverse. It is a brilliantly immediate performance, galvanising and alien and funny, and free of safe gestures and easy comparisons. I decide I want everything to feel like that this month: fuck yr ghosts.
But ghosts don't listen. James Leyland Kirby, aka noise absurdist V/VM, aka Quietus favourite The Caretaker, surfaces with Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was, a sprawling ambient work that demands your extended attention, and that seems saturated with the long-shadow sadness and stark, sweet chill of the year's slowing down – so both rules fly out the window and into blustery skies. This is heavy weather indeed: released as a three-CD set under the moniker of History Always Favours The Winners, the albums are also available as double LPs, both formats with sleeves featuring the heavily textured, melancholy paintings of Ivan Seal. The dimensions and design of this project are integral to its impact – if Kirby had released, as originally intended, a single-CD album, its affect would be very different. For one thing, a large-scale piece is in itself a statement of intent in our supposedly accelerated listening culture, upon which Kirby takes a dystopian, regretful stance. For another, it's near-impossible to conceive of the hours of music as a sequential whole; instead, we focus on aspects, moods and fragments, mapping and interpreting multiple versions. Not only does this simulate memory itself – that constantly mutating, murky expanse we carry within us collectively and individually, with which Kirby has long demonstrated a fascination via his Caretaker releases – but it also makes the palette of slow keyboard melody, subliminal bass, washes of noise and skilfully layered samples more meaningful than it might be otherwise.
Piano features heavily, and at times feels a little too refined and meandering. Yet it is always part of a larger picture, an eternity of vinyl crackle, tape wobble, quiet shrieks of feedback and suggested strings, EVP and Earth hum, reminiscent of the hidden audio worlds created by by Philip Jeck. Elsewhere the melodies drift from theremin and what sounds to be a music box or celeste, and from unsteady, pitch-bent synths from phantom raves. All are effective at conveying the loss and grief that Kirby makes clear in his titles and accompanying notes were the driving forces behind the albums. Kirby's honesty in verbalising his emotions and process is brave and provocative, in the field in which he works, and the slight stiltedness makes it all the more moving (the 'sadly' – plus comma – in the albums' collective title is weirdly formal and resigned, like a late train announcement). But this music hints at the enormity of both personal and universal solitude, endurance and decay without any verbal prompting whatsoever. I have written way too much about it, and its entropic atmosphere chimes perfectly with the year's demise, but this is a box-set to break rules for.
An odd CDR I pick up at a small press fair comes with the opposite amount of information, i.e. almost none, and the internet seems to have nothing to say on it either. It's only by chance that I bump into the guy who sold it to me in the pub a week later, who offers to put me in touch with his friend Bryan in Leeds, the instigator of Din Of Rotting Hermits, who are credited with these four untitled noise improvisations. The recording sets percussion and trumpet, maybe sax also, in some very resonant, I'd guess derelict space – credited on the sleeve as “the glass church factory” – which is itself played: metallic scrapes, shrieks and crashes point to some large-scale vandalism. These flinty, inhuman gamelan textures are, of course, common in experimental music from AMM to Z'ev, but here they sound wonderfully fresh and mobile, and the ritualistic, Boredoms-ish rhythmic passages point to an allegiance with DIY rather than classic improv. The whole thing is pretty blistering; I'm hoping to hear more soon from the mythical Bryan.
Excellent US noise/metal label Utech celebrates its fifth anniversary this month with an exclusive CD by Norwegian noise stalwart Lasse Marhaug free with every order, and new releases including Ural Umbo's S/T, which has some of the weighty, filmic drift of Bohren and Club der Gore, and Dark As The Sea by Italian artist Architeuthis Rex, a thrummy, hypnotic, bliss-noise oddity. Utech's birthday is an excuse to dig out some of their best releases from earlier this year, and to find that they soundtrack this month perfectly, not least Aluk Todolo's Finisternis. A French trio that sprang from black metal group Diamatregon, Aluk Todolo have been getting progressively further away from their roots: 2007's Descension was a bleak, psychedelic sprawl with Krautrock rhythms spliced to guttural riffing and impressively spooked atmospherics. Finsternis sees them stripping back still further, with five angular instrumentals on which cyclical, plodding basslines trace sinister shapes around a dissonant and minimal guitar and undercurrents of feedback and oscillation. The rhythm section marches throughout like zombies in a high wind. It's just one standout release in a pretty unrelenting roster that includes Final, James Plotkin, Skullflower, Zaimph, Thor's Hammer vocalist Runhild Gammelsaeter and far lesser known artists such as superb Dijon-based guitar/tape texturalist Olivier Dumont.
It seems odd to describe Wolf Eyes' confrontational music as 'a grower', but actually it often is just that, and Always Wrong (Hospital Productions) reveals itself slowly, digging dirty hooks into the listener with each monotonous intonation and slithering, sucking oscillation of 'Living Stone'. Whispers and slow-paced drones – especially on haunting closer 'Droll/Cut The Dog' – lurk alongside the barrages of chaotic rhythm, and that sense of being dragged backwards and downwards by sound that often hits you about halfway through a Wolf Eyes album is met with some simmering, shivering high-end twists and echoes of antique blues. Vocals are left almost untreated, which creates an unexpected tension: it takes repeated listens to feel comfortable with the presence of lyrics, directions, verbal intent within the sound, when they do not sound quite fully comfortable themselves. But when Always Wrong meshes, it does so like a spiderweb, and at only 31 minutes it doesn't take long for it to do so.
Vocal restraint is not a concept Gentry Densley, formerly of Iceburn and most recently of Ascend with Greg Anderson, has a lot of time for on his debut album as Eagle Twin. The Unkindness Of Crows (Southern Lord) is shaped by his stentorian preacher's burr and roar as much as it is by his darkly ornate, characterful guitar. With drummer Tyler Smith providing a brutal but fluid counterpoint, the duo alternate between widescreen doom and some inspired prog flourishes over an hour of tightly constructed, carrion-themed mini-epics. The pared-down lineup works in Eagle Twin's favour, illuminating muscular playing and songwriting that might, in other settings, be swamped by feedback and layering, and the thunderous delivery of the closing refrain means that “Birds ascending to battle the burning sun/Fall back to earth” sounds far less like an Om cover than you might think. Use this and the new Shrinebuilder album to do battle with the season's dark forces, and next month we can drift into hibernation with the new Oneohtrix Point Never album, out on No Fun Productions in November and already calming lost souls round these parts.