An Eternal Heaviness: Scorn’s Evanescence Revisited

Ned Raggett revisits this mesmeric dubbed out electronic album by Mick Harris and Nic Bullen, formerly of Napalm Death

Photograph of Scorn live in 2009 courtesy of Stu Green/shot2bits

Back in 1996, I was lucky enough to interview Mick Harris – I believe the context might have been one of his solo releases as Lull, not entirely sure. I have the recording around somewhere, if not a transcription, but I remember one very key thing about it – it was the easiest interview I had to do up until that point, because I only had to offer up a quick question or two because in response each time, Harris talked a lot. QUITE a lot. Now some interviews someone talks a lot and it gets wearying because whoever’s speaking doesn’t have a lot to say in the end – platitudes at best, mere waffle at worst. But Harris wasn’t like that – his thoughts were rooted in takes on mid-1990s UK culture and politics, musical and otherwise, from the position of an outsider who hadn’t simply ignored what was around him. He knew exactly what he didn’t like and why, and how that shaped what he did like and aimed to achieve. I came away thinking above all else, "Damn, why can’t more people be like that?"

Two years previously, Harris had released what proved to be the last full album as Scorn done as a partnership with Nic Bullen, who was, like Harris, a Napalm Death veteran seeking another route forward from that act’s total extremity. In retrospect, seeing the peripatetic way that both Harris and Bullen have carried out their work, rooted in their already multiple approaches before Scorn and after and covering a tremendous slew of releases, collaborations and creations since, not limited to music – makes their few years together all the more amazing. It’s a meeting of minds and approaches that maybe could never have lasted. But setting aside the subsequent remix album Ellipsis, 1994’s Evanescence is one hell of a way to bow out. It’s the kind of album that maybe could only have been created and released in the UK, something that drew on strands throughout the world and at home. At the time Scorn sounded like some of the heaviest music in the world; even at two decades’ distance, it’s hardly lost that feeling.

But for all the dominance and power, though, there’s the fact that it does stick to the ribs somehow. It was never solely bleakness. Thanks to kindred spirit Kevin Martin’s creation of the term ‘isolationism’, less played out in the end than post rock but no less of an attempt to catch a quicksilver feeling in amber, the work of Scorn was, perhaps inevitably, put within certain limits. One thing that’s fascinating about Evanescence to me that’s clearer on a relisten, even just compared to their album the previous year, Colossus, is how warm, inviting even, it can be, especially reading everything through the lens of the present. Suddenly the disorientations of dubstep’s origins as much as Martin’s own work as the Bug and much more besides seems to have a clearer root somewhere, in an album that plays out as an endless 3 am. Scraps of familiarity are transformed into loops and rhythms that soothe as much as they raise the hackles – two years out from their debut efforts, their Swans worship at the full as much as their Mad Professor, Pop Group or Adrian Sherwood fascinations, they are swimming through a very dark ocean of constant flowing undertows. There’s nothing like a choogle here, but there is a chug, a steady churn forward.

Bullen’s vocals seem to mean less than his bass playing on the face of it, but starting the album with ‘Silver Rain Fell’, an image cryptic, beautiful and threatening all at once, showcases both his ability with his words and how to deliver them, stern but swathed in echo. On one of the album’s quicker numbers, ‘Days Passed’, the clip of the rhythm could be called peppy, Bullen’s calm delivery of the verses suddenly underscored by strong pronouncements of the title phrase as punctuation. It almost feels like a transformation of the language, using English to feel like it came from somewhere else instead, creating a new meaning much as the music does. As he sings on ‘Exodus’ while didgeridoo parts and a twisted high hat/pulse drives everything forward, it’s almost open ended contemplation amidst a roiling central core.

This bubbling shimmer throughout Evanescence, though, also makes the title appropriate in more than one way. It’s not gossamer in the slightest, songs like ‘Automata’ and ‘Dreamspace’ are hardly about to disappear in the breeze.  But it puts me in mind of a term I read somewhere – a friend, a review, somewhere – about "rainy day psychedelia" being what the English can do best. The exact reference was to the late sixties/early seventies work of Pink Floyd, something inevitably understated, downbeat, created in and around rising damp (and not just the TV series). The feeling of slow downgrade and heavy sighs that swirl in songs like ‘Falling’, the almost romantic tangle of the guitars throughout the album – not to mention that silver rain at the start of it all – bespeak grey skies, trudges along puddle-filled streets, slickness down the sides of abandoned buildings. It’s something that could be ‘simply’ magical in lighter moods but feels more oppressive here, yet never to the point of complete crushing – an album of internal moods matching external circumstances.

While there were many Scorn albums to come as Harris continued to explore further possibilities without Bullen, songtitles in retrospect can only be read as underscoring a certain conclusion — ‘Exodus’, ‘The End’, ‘Slumber’. Points of finality if not absolute ones, and the extensions provided on Ellipsis by so many kindred spirits of UK-based sonic extremity – Coil, Autechre, Scanner and Meat Beat Manifesto among others – gave a sense of both their peers and their range. When people speak of mood and rhythm and 1994 and UK music, over here in the States, at least, it’s often usual suspects – Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky’s first singles, excellent listening all. But Harris and Bullen were right there with them on Evanescence, no less powerful and often greatly more so.

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