The Lead Review: Rory Gibb On King Midas Sound & Fennesz’s Edition 1

King Midas Sound and Fennesz's collaborative music evokes the anxieties of love in the time of climate change, says Rory Gibb

By lucky coincidence, as I sit down to write this review I’m midway through reading a collection of essays on the subject of Dread — a term used often enough with reference to Kevin Martin’s music to veer dangerously close to cliche. The book explores the points at which societal and environmental terror meet and mingle, and its range of perspectives emphasises the complexity of dread as an affective state: its capacity to paralyse, but also its potential to inspire imagination and action towards alternative possibilities for the future. Equally, while Martin’s chemical dancehall as The Bug may tend towards anxious and brittle, it’s just as often cartoonish, splashily colourful and flecked with pitch-black humour. If last year’s Angels & Devils often railed against socioeconomic forces beyond its control — "I’m just trying to function!" came Manga’s hollered plea from within its storm of steely noise — in the rave its function was still to act as joyous, braincase-shuddering party music. Listening back to that album now brings back vague memories of being squashed in a mass of sweaty bodies, their edges melting into a murk of dry ice, with a backlit Flowdan casting an imperious outline through the gloom.

While such emotional ambiguities bring The Bug to life, they’re more potent in King Midas Sound, his trio with Kiki Hitomi and Roger Robinson. Late last decade, Martin’s voyages in electronic dub and his personal connections (and releases) with Hyperdub hinted at alignments between his own music and particular sonic narratives within dubstep. In its sketches of deserted city streets, lover’s frustrations and persistent visceral shudderings of sub-bass, what the trio’s 2009 album Waiting For You shared with contemporaries like Kode9 and Loefah was dread as the shadow of the future cast backward over the present, unknowable yet inescapable. Their lyrics echoed through its silvery airspace like warnings tunnelled back through wormholes in time: the unnerving intimacy of Hitomi’s whispered taunts on ‘Goodbye Girl’, flung like daggers into the heart of a former lover, or Robinson’s pointed mutterings of "The earth will kill you if you try to kill it". The deep-rooted ecological anxieties those lines tapped into were resonant then, but feel more so now following several further years of international inertia over climate change. As Vinay Gupta succinctly puts it in the Dread collection: "our very most basic needs, in the western system, consume more resources than the planet can provide. Everything we take beyond that limit is stolen from the future."

Such concerns course through Edition 1, King Midas Sound’s new collaborative record with Christian Fennesz. "I waited for you, but you never came," mulls Robinson on opener ‘Mysteries’, gazing back over the time since the trio’s debut album with a distinct pang of frustration. A recurring motif is the image of storm clouds hanging on the horizon: a warning sign of things to come, conjured in sound by the ever-present greyscale mists and ink black seas of Fennesz’s guitar. "Now we’ve lost our path to paradise / Up ahead there’s only stormy skies," sings Robinson on ‘Waves’, his voice echoing outward thorough the fog like a sole survivor adrift on a life-raft. "And these waves have come to take our lives / Let’s just hold each other tight". The song hints at a relationship’s dissolution, but in the album’s context its sonics and storytelling hint towards something altogether knottier and more massive — you’re reminded of the rising sea levels that already affect human lives, further climate-driven migrations, western governments on future-facing lockdown, the apocalyptic connotations of an Endless Summer. Alongside the atmospheric turbulence stirred up by Fennesz and Martin on tracks like the shimmering ‘Above Water’ it reminds me of the experience described by Timothy Morton in his 2013 book Hyperobjects, of a current world where "every accident of the weather becomes a potential symptom of a substance, global warming … In any weather conversation, one of you is going to mention global warming at some point. Or you both decide not to mention it but it looms over the conversation like a dark cloud, brooding off the edge of an ellipsis."

Edition 1 possesses that same sense of something huge, lurid and incomprehensible weaving itself into the fabric of everyday life. As ‘Loving Or Leaving’ comes to a close, a roar of canned Godzilla music swells like a rotting shipwreck coaxed upward from the depths, recalling the uncanny reality-collages of Philip Jeck’s Sand. As lyricists both Robinson and Hitomi are adept at making romantic dramas feel elemental in scale, something then bolstered by Martin’s towering scaffolds of sub-bass and distinctively scuttling sleng-teng rhythms. On ‘We Walk Together’ Hitomi strikes a note of quiet optimism — "this love is what we make it" — even as her voice shudders beneath soft rains of static, suggesting a decaying recording or, more ominously, the telltale crackle of a Geiger counter.

‘Melt’ recalls tiny intimacies now amplified into unbearable memories, still experienced in vivid present tense — "the small tings I mustn’t think about / like how she bites my lips when we kiss". Teleported away from the inner city (and, to me at least, distinctly London-sounding) geographies that Martin’s music generally conjures, here Robinson wanders fitfully through a vast and unfamiliar world somewhere between fogbound shanty town and post-apocalyptic spaghetti western, complete with echo-laden strands of Pablo-esque melodica snaking from somewhere just out of sight. This telescoping of timescales — the intimate and momentary transformed into the epic and awe-inducing — strikes a resonant chord. Especially for younger generations, everyday choices about the future do now feel loaded with the weight of planetary uncertainty, in the face of rising inequality, a likely shattered 2°C warming threshold and erosion of the ecosystems that are our life support machines. And so it becomes harder to unpick your own dread concerning romantic, societal and environmental futures, as the three bleed together through a tangle of connections that together can verge on the overwhelming.

Yet compared to Martin’s monolithic last couple of albums as The Bug, or the glowering intensity of King Midas Sound’s live incarnation of recent years, musically Edition 1 tends towards quiet, reflective gestures. Apparently the first of four collaborative ‘edition’ albums by King Midas Sound, it sounds more like the product of a burst of energetic shared activity than something honed to the nth degree. It’s a pleasure to hear the trio working in this way, especially given the sonic common ground they share with Fennesz, and it’s also the most energised I’ve heard the latter sound for a while. Nonetheless, the lack of friction between their respective musical aesthetics can’t help but make me wonder how King Midas would sound in collaboration with another, less likely, fellow traveller — and, indeed, how Robinson and Hitomi’s lyrical avatars might react to finding themselves challenged by starker, more uncomfortable and still more unreal surrounds. It will be exciting to hear where this promising series of records travels next.

King Midas Sound & Fennesz will play St John Hackney on October 30, alongside Dean Blunt and Shackleton presents Powerplant

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