Lead Review: Karl Smith On Jambinai’s A Hermitage

In Korean post-rock trio Jambinai's latest offering, Karl Smith finds both a powerful hope for the future of a stagnating genre and a worthwhile exploration of our modern malice and malaise

In early 2004 a friend introduced me to a band he’d been listening to called Explosions in the Sky and their most recent album, released late the previous year – The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. Albums very rarely change lives, but they can alter courses by degrees and adjust outlooks, however briefly, in ways that feel seismic – even if only at the time. That album, then, was the proverbial gateway drug: the rolling snares and chiming guitars of its joyous highs and melancholic lows – of ‘Your Hand In Mine’ and ‘Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean’ – enough to spur not only further exploration of the band’s own work, but also the realisation that it had laid an entire genre at my feet. In short, that “post-rock was a thing”.

As a 14 year-old living in the faux-rural/quasi-urban malaise of the Home Counties, and as someone in the early throes of what would become a long-lasting emotional instability – a choking neutrality detrimental to my relationship with my self and with those around me, brought about by an inability to come to terms with a family death, as well as, I’m sure, certain latent predispositions – post-rock was exactly what I needed from music. EITS, Sígur Ros, Yndi Halda, Mogwai, Red Sparrowes (and so on, and so on) provided a different kind of catharsis to what I’d been listening to previously: it was less of a venting process than something like glassJAw’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence and less of a wholesale embrace of the low ebb than Brand New’s Deja Entendu.

Yet it wasn’t the idea that post-rock seemed to cover the full emotional spectrum that seemed to set it apart, but rather that it dictated the spectrum itself: while it’s easy to say that the subject matter of a mostly-instrumental genre is “open to interpretation”, in this instance at least, it’s also a kind of fallacy – or, at most, a half-truth. Listening back now to The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, it’s hard not to grimace at its staunch prescriptivism. (Even though, as prescriptions usually are, it was sorely needed at the time.) It’s never a question of “How does this make you feel?”, but an imperative “This is how you will feel now.” For a while it allowed me to walk a line and to set my moods accordingly, but what once felt Utilitarian soon revealed itself to be something altogether more Totalitarian instead.

Much of the genre – though as with all sweeping statements, there are of course exceptions to this rule – was not only emotion-by-numbers (in retrospect, playing me rather than vice versa) but also music-by-numbers: a loud/quiet mathematical formula that seemed rarely to deviate even between artists. There’s so little space on The Earth Is No A Cold Dead Place, for example, that you can visualise it plotted out on micro-squared paper. In that sense, Godspeed You! Black Emperor came to offer a sense of relief: their hectic builds and long (long) drones that often came to nothing were a kind of exhilarating “fuck you” to expectation. It’s the reason that so much of their music feels so sinister, is so full of foreboding and expectation: it requires something of the listener, and the only emotion that necessarily prescribes is a general feeling of anxiety. The reward? Freedom.

And this is where, some 12 years later, Jambinai (aka Bomi Kim, Ilwoo Lee’s and Eun Youg Sim) come in: a natural successor to the Emperor, better suited to rule in what is now a very different world. A world in which their work will be consumed almost exclusively by, if not digital natives then, at the very least the remnants of the last digital immigrants.

On A Hermitage, what this translates to musically is a combined sense of sprawling vacuum, of the infinite nothing and instant gratification that so dominate our everyday lives. There’s more empty space on this album, requiring more participation, than anything in Godspeed!’s back catalogue, but the longest track clocks in it a meagre seven minutes and thirty seconds. It’s indicative of a society that, through our social media channels and scrolling news, requires full investment in every issue – if only for one day.

In that vein, it’s also inherently less arch. Yes, there is a gloaming quality to the music, a sense of humidity that at times verges into the oppressive, but A Hermitage, in its reflectiveness, feels both symptomatic and sympathetic. Where even Godspeed! would occasionally take on a superego-ish quality and set the framework of the mood with their pace and timbre, Jambinai’s ‘Echo Of Creation’, for example, is so violently unpredictable in its transitions that it can’t even be said to have a single mood.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that there’s a more obvious generosity to Jambinai’s work. The Korean trio’s reconstitution of folk music, using traditional instruments and riffing on ceremonial pieces, is inherently and necessarily outward looking: the album’s opener, ‘Wardrobe’, which also happens to be its shortest track, owes as much to the traditions of non-stop riffery found in Slayer’s discography as to anything even remotely post-rock. And, while use of the haegum, the piri, and the geomungo may hark to Korean culture, the band’s desire "to communicate with the ordinary person who doesn’t listen to Korean traditional music" points to an inclusive and far-reaching modus operandi. Where Lee explains that their music is representative of the fact that "Nowadays, especially in Korea, many give up their dreams because life gets worse every day," in our current political climate the "especially in Korea" caveat (though not to be ignored) does not detract from its universal resonance, and the unpredictability of Jambinai’s music is testament to this. The way in which it swings seamlessly from the howling dirge of ‘Deus Benedicat Tini’ through the ominous, grasping slowburn desperation of ‘The Mountain’ is a nod both to the pace of change in our world and its diametrically opposed hopefulness and futility.

The press material for the album notes that "Jambinai’s music taps into the feelings of anger and isolation felt by a younger generation suspicious of the conservative forces that seek to control them," and — though there are obvious reference points for these in the world today — when listening to the record it’s hard not to see those forces as being internal as much as external; that the chaotic jazz and quiet low-key thud of plucked guitar see A Hermitage not only pointing a looking glass at the world, but also a mirror at the Self. All that being said, what makes the album so potent at this present moment — in an age of virtue signalling and twibbons – is that, despite its openness and its geographical idiosyncrasies, there’s no room for any one person or any one group to lay claim to Jambinai’s music as their own singular lived experience; this is music reaching, by virtue of its alternating ferocity and tenderness, as far in all directions as possible.

Until very recently, with the same few exceptions, post-rock on the whole had begun to seem — with the benefit of hindsight and experience — less like the gateway to freedom I thought I had felt and more like a kind of emotional fascism, a crutch which had no positive effect on mobility when not in constant use. But Jambinai have altered the course of the genre — as ever, by just a few degrees — directing it toward something more egalitarian. Something genuinely connective and less imperative. As the band themselves say, "To the people who live in pain… You are the king in your own life."

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