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Infinity Machines Tristan Bath , April 6th, 2015 18:33

The grand feature length offering that is Infinity Machines comes packaged in an almost anti-psychedelic grey cover, stamped with a black rorschach image that appears to represent a frontal plane dissection of a human brain. Or is it a walnut? Or maybe a cat's arsehole? Like this music, it could really be whatever you make of it. Is the album one sustained, simulated jam session finding the band in an unusually atypical mood? Is it a journey through the cross-wires and bemusing mis-associations of an unhealthy mind? The album features six long tracks in the double digits, and two shorter excursions, plus a colossal, optional 40-minute live bonus recording for pre-orders, so there's some two and a half hours for us to decode what Gnod are up to (and whatever happens, that's more than enough time for a couple of tabs to be in full effect by the album's end).

Gnod have worn very many pointy hats during their career to date, from the heavy motorik of Chaudelande, to the tripped out near-ambient tribal rituals of The Somnambulist's Tale, and dozens more CD-R, cassette and short run releases. The many members of the Gnod diaspora have further broadened the collective's palette in recent years, with the Tesla Tapes label putting out a wide range of garotting experimentalism, key members Chris Haslam and Paddy Shine spreading noisy techno vibrations as Dwellings and Druss, and the Gnod-associated Tombed Visions label headed by Gnod's sax-player David McLean firing out slabs of fringe jazz and icy minimalism. Infinity Machines feels like something of a crucible for it all, blending all things Gnod that have come before into one gigantic, filthy, trippy, hazy, noisy, and occasionally beautiful mess.

Infinity Machines is littered with several unexpected new elements, from the rambling spoken word samples taken from residents and artists based in the group's Islington Mill, to the Rhodes piano and aforementioned saxophone that takes centre stage at several key junctures in the album. The seventeen minute opener, 'Control Systems' begins with laughter from one Islington Miller, with another commenting, "I quite like people being around, I also like to know I can have a bit of space and shut the door". Later in the track, another resident goes on, "notions of public and private are very mixed up...daydreaming is a kind of private space."

Thematically, this summarises much of the activity on Infinity Machines, which is ultimately a clash of the internal and external; the sound of many participating artists manifesting their clashing internal worlds in the Islington Mill, daydreaming together. The album comprises many layered and reassembled sessions at the mill, and the many seamlessly sewn together parts that make up ‘Control Systems' microcosmically comes to symbolise the album as a whole. Several minutes or abstract sound effects, and battling synth noises litter the foreground while wave after wave of bassy throbbing noise rhythmically pulsates underneath. Suddenly glass smashes and we jump cut to odd shapes getting plodded out on a contemplative and very pretty Silent Way Rhodes piano, and forlorn saxophone notes start to ring out with very un-Gnod tenderness. The tone takes an about turn, and mid-tempo drumming enters the mix, adding a menacing edge to the jam, punctuated by whirring space-age synth washes and demonic plucked zither-like strings. "Should I have faith in politicians?" asks one of our murky narrators while the music breaks for a gentle drumless refrain, and then once again the atmosphere switches back to darkness. McLean's double tracked saxophone re-enters, launching into a series of maniacally squealing notes straight from the Zorn school of thought, seemingly replying to the question with a harshly shouted "no!" The cavernous atmosphere cycles on, the drums and sax depart, and eventually the droning synthetic noises and tinkling Rhodes falter and disappear. One of the narrators muses again during the piece's final moments: "the religion that I experienced as a child didn't seem to be very much about faith, it just seemed to be about ritual …but then, maybe I don't know what faith is."

The journey of the album follows a distinctly narrative trajectory after the overture of 'Control Systems', heading further and further down a rabbit hole towards indescribable parts of the collective unconscious. 'Collateral Damage' dances interlocking horn lines around a growing malevolent minimal electronic bed - all flailing bassy tendrils and scattergun beats - which by minute nine seems to engulf and destroy the rest of the track, eschewing the more contemplative opening sections entirely in favour of industrial aggression. This picks up fully on the seven-minute 'Desire', which features Paddy Shine yelling disgruntled lyrics over harsh jagged industrial beats, like some primitive NIN track that's swapped guitars for brazen sine waves. 

The album then moves on to its truly cosmic middle section. The 45-minute trip of its fourth, fifth and sixth tracks - which each spend over a quarter of an hour apiece gradually descending deeper and deeper into chasms of noise and beats - is the defining moment of Gnod's career to date. 'The Importance Of Downtime' lives up to its title, spending the first ten minutes layering droning John Carpenter synths into a slowly yawning meditative ocean of tones (see Nurse with Wound's Soliloquy For Lilith). Bit by bit, looping rhythms and bass notes slot into position deep beneath the atmosphere, gradually rising at snail's pace, to the point that fourteen minutes in we suddenly discover ourselves in the midst of some near-danceable duel between Detroitian drum machines and heavily grinding synth tones. The track evolves so slowly, it's almost imperceptible.

'White Privileged Wank' is far less gradual, bringing in increasingly distorted lapping waves of amorphously coalesced noise, solidly burying the needle only about four minutes in. Once settled into a mid-tempo march, the angry brutal static solidly soldiers on through some eighteen minutes of battering speaker assault. In the final couple of minutes, it all eventually falters, dismantling into short-circuiting stabs, bleeps and buzzes, finally dissolving entirely on a fade out. The central triptych of the album comes to a close with 'Spinal Fluid' - a  bruised comedown of sorts, blending further vocal samples into a slow-shifting coda of minimal beats and massive drones. Gnod largely made their name with hard-rocking, and often guitar-driven epics in the past, so the shift to more synthetic ground is at times surprising - but it clearly serves their purpose, coming across at times with almost nightmarish levels of cold intimacy.

'Breaking The Hex' aptly puts an end to the locked groove minimal noise of the preceding three quarters of an hour with a hard hitting five-minute acid rock riff-off, which in fact wouldn't have seemed out of place on the likes of Chaudelande (were it not for the wailing saxophones). The album then closes with the laid back title track, returning to the contemplative tone of the album's head, cruising through mid-tempo group improvisation much like Miles Davis' greatest fusion recording, 'He Loved Him Madly' (a tribute to the late Duke Ellington), right down to the heavily reverbed wah-wah tones at the heart of the piece, and octave-shift morphed horn weirdness. The album comes calmly to a close, and our therapy to an end.

In addition to hearing and seeing things, Schizophrenia has sometimes (apocryphally) also been used to describe dissociative identity disorder - where a sufferer may appear to exhibit two or more distinctly different personalities. It would seem that Infinity Machines suffers from it all, apparently unable to come to terms with which voices are real and which are not, unable to even realise which facets are truly "itself", shifting between aggression and meditation throughout. The album's central diversion into those three long and harshly minimal excursions seem to do away with the group dynamic, opting for what sounds almost like the work of a solo musician. Selfishness is so often, and perhaps unfairly seen as a an undesirable attribute, but as one of our Islington Mill inner voices made clear at the start of the album, we all like "to know I can have a bit of space and shut the door". Those intense, extended moment of calculated noise are undoubtedly in the first person, and they force the listener to introspect, goaded into a state of suspended disbelief by the album's epic bookend jams. It's all there on Infinity Machines - anger, cynicism, hatred, sexual frustration, dry humour, even some sort of intensely bacchanal happiness - and these are the defining emotions of our time; an age defined by the excessive externalisation of our private headspace (narcissistically or otherwise). Infinity Machines is a painful modern masterpiece, and it's urging us to listen to the voices in our heads.