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In Extremis

An Hallucinatory Experience: R Loren On Sailors With Wax Wings
Petra Davis , November 24th, 2010 09:36

Petra Davis and R Loren discuss the new album from Sailors With Wax Wings

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Early in the autumn, R Loren of wondrous Denton avant-post-rockers Pyramids released two, sort-of parallel collaborative projects: White Moth, which brought together Lydia Lunch, Alec Empire and Dalek - among others - to pursue the silvery skeins of commonality between digital hardcore and black metal; and Sailors With Wax Wings, which has united Ted Parsons (Swans/Godflesh/Prong), Colin Marston (Krallice/Behold…The Arctopus), Aidan Baker (Nadja), Simon Scott (Slowdive), Dominick Fernow (Prurient/Cold Cave), Vern Rumsey (Unwound), Hildur Gudnadottir (Múm/Throbbing Gristle/The Knife/Fever Ray), Aaron Stainthorpe (My Dying Bride), Jonas Renkse (Katatonia), Marissa Nadler, J. Leah and James Blackshaw, in a ghostly global collaboration named for the work of a long-dead poet.

The Sailors With Wax Wings record retains Pyramids' belief in texture as the primary carrier of feeling, but aims for depth beyond a dense surface; for characterisation and narrative, for emotional arc and trajectory. If, as M Kraig claimed, Pyramids' last record captured "a singular texture isomorphic with a certain emotional state," the Sailors With Wax Wings record seems happy to brook the disagreements that attach to the containment of multitudes. Though many of the sound textures used are soft, they are mostly extreme sounds leavened by layering and entwining - (Baker and Marston artfully wrap layers of guitar around one another, and Fernow supplies electronic swaddling) and governed by vocals (mostly from Leah and Loren, though with one gorgeous effort by Nadler on the album's closer) as tender as they are chilling. The effect is naturalistic, calling to mind thundrous walls of water, hidden subterranean gardens, lost skybound theogonies: these songs mourn the ghosts of forgotten forces, or perhaps of lost species, both outside of and more than the human realm.

The project must have been, even simply in practical terms, hard to manage. How did that many people work together and keep the project from sprawling?

R Loren: Everyone tracked in isolation, from wherever they felt most comfortable, at locations that span the globe. But I feel this resulted in true collaboration, rather than the bickering that nearly always ends in someone giving in to compromise within the typical sphere of a rehearsal space.

The scope of the collaboration is impressive, but it's also very broad - very few people would put Marissa Nadler together with Prurient. What kind of vision could draw those two together?

RL: Yeah, you're right about the eclectic nature of the collaborators. But I tend to think in terms of textures - Prurient is dark, airy, and brooding sheets of texture while Marissa Nadler is a dark, airy, brooding singer-songwriter. Though on extreme opposite ends of the sonic spectrum, the mood, tone, imagery, theme, diction of both artists exist on the same plane.

Right. It's lovely to talk to someone who doesn't think in terms of genres, actually. Most of the music I like that might be perceived as generic, what I like about it is not the generic stuff, it's specific arrangements of sound texture that are idiosyncratically pleasing.

RL: That's what I wanted - a fabric of sound where only a precise combination of threads woven together is capable of culminating into the intended patterns and textures. As the instrumentation grew denser and the songs began to grow, the initial list of artists/threads that I thought might work best to produce the envisioned fabric, would shift. The entire time, however, the overarching aesthetic is melancholy- something all of the artists have mastered.

What was it that drove the project?

RL: The initial inspiration to put the project in motion was a brief hallucinatory encounter with the long dead and brilliant [poet and novelist] Stephen Crane.

I had read a little about that elsewhere, but I didn't know whether you meant a literal encounter with a ghostly being, an hallucination, or a dream.

RL: Well...I hadn't experienced anything like this before. I had unknowingly just begun what would turn into a year-long struggle with anxiety and had been listening obsessively to Prurient's Black Vase album...

Wow. Prurient is precisely the artist I would NOT prescribe for one struggling with anxiety!

RL: Yeah. It was most likely the cause for the entire hallucinatory experience, including the finale where I thought my teeth were falling out of my face.

Oh my God. So for you Prurient was literally psychotropic?

RL: I think shortly after the first Pyramids album was released, which was about three years ago now, I began to view music as not just an aural experience, but a visual encounter as well where all songs that I have heard from that point on manifest in my mind as visual series of layers.

Is this a form of involuntary, synaesthetic experience?

RL: It's more just a coming of age in the way I perceive art. One day it just clicked- all songs, paintings, film, art in general, are texts with meaning that can be unpacked one layer at a time.

Are there particular artists that lend themselves to this unpacking?

RL: I'm thinking of music like Prurient, WOLD, Alvin Lucier, The Human Quena Orchestra, Burzum... it's almost as if I am listening to the inner workings of nature herself, a rain forest perhaps - dense layers of beauty waiting to be unpacked by the listener.

And your unpacking of Black Vase revealed something to you about Stephen Crane's work, or was it literally an encounter with his ghost that happened?

RL: There he was, as if swimming in my walls, chanting verses from the collections of poetry I have spent many years studying closely. He is known for his prose, but his poetry is quite revolutionary and unfortunately not widely read.

And the lines he chanted are the lines that form the titles of the songs?

RL: Each song title is taken from a line of his poetry. That line is not always from the poem which makes up the particular song resting under that title, but tracking down the poems that contain the phrases used as titles would be a great place to start. There is a beauty in his poetry that finds academia within the most simple, concise language.

On reading Crane's poetry as research for this piece, I began finding parallels between his style and the aesthetic of the project. For example, the devotional aspect - in this project turned to nature - and the use of impressionistic modes; I found it useful to consider techniques such as chiaroscuro while listening. There's a romanticism (in the classical sense) to the album's tonality, but it almost seems like a writerly romanticism rather than the kind of romanticism metal standardly employs, as found in black metal or ambient doom for example. Do you feel this is a writerly record?

RL: That is an intriguing thought and a refreshing question. [Long pause] I suppose the term writerly is a bit subjective going across media, but I gather what you are saying, and I would say I agree completely. For a moment I am driven to think of the Bronte sisters. The aggressive density and grit that something like Wuthering Heights employs, all from the hand of a woman which at the time was both controversial and brought the steady beauty of the femme dreamer to the work...encompassing that fragile balance of beauty and aggression with an overarching melancholy... I definitely feel that coming from this record.

That's so weird. That phrase - 'the femme dreamer' - is the same phrase I use in my mind to discuss that aesthetic in Kate Bush's work. How strange that you'd put your work together with the Brontes and use that precise phrase.

RL: Wow. That is a trip! It is amazing to me that we both chose those words! I have always appreciated Kate's work, but it wasn't until last year that one of my students shared 'Wuthering Heights' with me. Intense stuff.