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Album Of The Week

Crisis Mode: Mesmerizer By Selvhenter
Bernie Brooks , June 22nd, 2023 08:42

On Selvhenter's latest, the group moves like an off-kilter communal organism connected by energy, flowing freely from one idea to the next, says Bernie Brooks

Photo by Mads Fisker

In the late 18th century, Viennese physician Franz Mesmer had one of his patients chug a bunch of iron in solution as a treatment for “hysteria”. Using magnets attached to the patient, Francisca Österlin, he attempted to manipulate the downed solution, supposedly creating an “artificial tide” within her. According to Österlin, she could feel the concoction flowing throughout her body, drawn here and there by the magnets’ pull. Apparently, she felt better for a few hours afterward, whatever that means. Mesmer, for his part, would reject the importance of the magnet in the procedure. Instead, he claimed that a natural transfer of energy – his “Lebensmagnetismus” and its effect on Österlin's “vital fluid” – was key to the treatment’s success. He’d stop using magnets altogether, continue developing a proto-scientific (now pseudoscientific) theory he called “animal magnetism” (aka “mesmerism”), and get run out of Vienna a few years later.

Listening to Mesmerizer, Selvhenter’s first proper LP in nine years, I can’t help but think of ol’ Franz and his fateful experiment-slash-procedure. Part of it is the album’s title, sure, but it’s also the album’s sound. Which at times is not unlike a ferric potion sloshing around the guts of an otherwise coordinated, functional being. On a few tracks here, there’s a certain subcutaneous quality to the band’s percussive gurgles and sonorous croaks, at once compelling and a little bit gross, which, to be clear, is a good thing.

From the get-go the self-described “noise free rock” group is a peculiar proposition. Two drummers lay down occasionally out-of-whack polyrhythms, a sax honks out melodies and mighty riffs and mutoid noise, while a trombone fed through a bass amp delivers cement-truck low end. Formerly a quintet of Jaleh Negari and Anja Jacobsen on drums, Sonja LaBianca on saxophone, Maria Bertel on trombone, and Maria Diekmann on violin, on Mesmerizer Selvhenter have downsized to a quartet. Diekmann’s violin is absent here, and that absence is palpable. Though that’s not to suggest that Selvhenter as a four-piece are lesser than. No less fierce when they need to be, their sound is perhaps more measured now, more spacious, less wall-of-noise. More elemental. Could be they’re more patient now, too, less intent on cranking things up to eleven right from the start, as was often the case on their last LP, Motions Of Large Bodies. On Mesmerizer, we’re a ways into track three before things start to get properly effed.

Not that everything needs to be properly effed. Opener ‘Plex’ is a humid, spacious wonder that grooves along over a thick bass drone, its echoing saxophone almost plaintive. The drums pick up steam a bit near the track’s halfway point, but just as it seems ready to explode into a crush of noise, the track opens up even further as LaBianca’s echo-drenched phrases take centre stage. The brief ‘Jhaptal’ follows, moving with more urgency and a heavier gait, Bertel’s trombone somehow thrumming like a jacked air handler. By the third track, the comparatively maximal ‘Connoisseur’, Selvhenter are running wild with the dubwise sensibility that defines large swaths of Mesmerizer, deploying ping-pong delay and a wild array of effects that would feel right at home on an On-U Sound production. At this point, maybe you’re grooving, mesmerised even. You might be thinking you’ve got the album pegged. Then, ‘Heftig’ happens, fifty-six seconds of jittery chaos that grabs you by the collar, shakes you from your reverie. No complacency here.

Crucial to Mesmer’s treatments was the spurring on of what he called “crises” in his patients. At a certain point during a session, he would use his fingers to apply pressure just below their diaphragm. He’d do this for ages. Hours, according to the sages at Wikipedia. Eventually, if he did it right, the patient would burst into convulsions, the so-called crisis. Apparently, this was meant to be a good thing. The road to wellness.

Selvhenter are masterful spurrers-on of their own brand of crisis. Jarring tracks like ‘Heftig’ and moments within individual tracks themselves rattle listeners’ brains back into action, serving up something like a full reboot of their attention spans and expectations. This leaves the band free to change tack, their listeners rapt, fully present in the moment, and open to whatever happens next.

And what happens after ‘Heftig’ is something else. The album’s heaviness shifts. For a few moments, it becomes more riff-focused, sludgier maybe. ‘Rundhyl’ thunders along, all black skies and sax squall, before ‘Anker’ goes fully subterranean, the track’s hand and auxiliary percussion reverberating forever, the saxophone this time like a wounded animal.

As far as I understand it – and I’m by no means an expert – Mesmer understood health as resulting from a mysterious flow of invisible “vital fluid” that moves through and between all living things at all times. Good health, he reasoned, is the happy outcome of this life energy flowing freely throughout the body. Ill health, it follows, is caused by blockages of the flow. This, of course, is not supported by science. It is, however, a great metaphor for creativity, and one that I think applies to Selvhenter particularly well.

There are no moments on Mesmerizer that feel forced, or like the imposition of one player’s will upon the rest. Instead, the group moves like an off-kilter communal organism connected by energy, flowing – OK, maybe more like lurching – freely from one idea to the next, and really working through those ideas, knocking blockages free left and right. The result is that the percussionless exploration of brass on ‘Open Cluster’ and the smoggy, repeat-o sludge noise of ‘L.A.’ sound like natural expressions of the same whole, each equally at home on the album.

In 1784, Louis XVI appointed a pair of royal commissions whose goal was to get to the bottom of Mesmer’s vital fluid and mesmerism as practiced by his acolyte, the prominent physician Charles d’Eslon. Weirdly, among the investigators was the then US ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin. Again per Wikipedia, after a series of blind tests – including one that involved a man going crisis mode after hugging the wrong potentially mesmerised tree in Franklin’s garden – the commission famously stated that “the [vital] fluid without imagination is powerless, whereas imagination without the fluid can produce the effects of the fluid.” It turns out Mesmer did discover something: the placebo effect.

That, however, does not apply to Selvhenter, nor does it apply to Mesmerizer. Both are the real deal. If you’ll permit me to return to the well of Mesmer-related metaphor: Selvhenter are both the vital fluid and the imagination, and the effects of their genre-defying jams are medical grade. Hell, they might even stand up to a royal commission.