Slowwank – 13th November 2015
Chris Tenz is a man who is haunted by memories of a difficult and unusual past. Born in Canada and now resident in London, he was raised apart from society in the confines of a religious cult. His departure from the community resulted in his rejection and excommunication. Adrift in a very different (although no less strange) world, it was through music he grappled with the complexities of life and the complex mechanisms of living with a mind filled with questioning and doubt.
Nails Through Bird Feet is more than simply a collection of songs: five years in the making, it’s the product of an intensely personal journey, an exploration of the artist’s mind, his world and his circumstances. That the album is dedicated to two friends who also broke free of the religion – one of whom disappeared, never to be found, the other whom committed suicide – only adds to the depth of the introspection that this album encapsulates.
If the album’s title and that of the opening track, ‘Cunty’, suggests something heavily abrasive, even thrashy or grindy in nature, then the delicate, whispy folk of said opening track confounds any such expectations. A gently picked acoustic guitar hangs in a mist of delicate, amorphous sound to provide an ethereal backdrop to the vocals which sound desperately lost and aching with mourning and regret.
‘Nails Through Bird Feet’ comes in three parts, the first two segued together, so quiet as to barely make its presence felt within the grooves of the vinyl. The hushed, almost whispered singing feels almost apologetic, scared of its own sound and cautious of its own presence.
The slow, quavering sibilance of ‘Bethnal Green Cellar’ creates a soft, damp and vaguely claustrophobic sensation. It’s hard to really conjure a visual image of the space which inspired the composition: these are not visual songs, there’s nothing representational about them. That isn’t to say they’re strictly abstract, either. Through the compositions – or perhaps more accurately, the medium of sound – Tenz evokes sensations, fleeting thoughts which emerge from the shadows before disappearing once more.
‘And Elbows’ intimates a growing sense of self; the guitar and voice are both louder and stronger sounding – but the muffled sound of a sniff or laboured breath which initially provides a strange alternative percussion eventually builds to so much interference, a disruption to the flow that ultimately derails the song and swallow it up. Again, we find ourselves standing in darkness, haunted by not the song itself, but the hint of what the song may have been had it not been taken from us. It’s in this darkness, the protracted silences, the near-silences where there merest low-level hum we as listeners begin to find those echoes of doubt. Was the song as we heard it? Do our minds fill in the blanks to create a ‘complete’ song from the echoed fragments scratched in the air? Was the song itself real or only imaginary?
The challenge to any artist is to realise the work envisioned in the mind. It’s a further challenge, and one often beyond the artist’s control, to see that the receivers of the work interpret it as intended or otherwise connect with the work’s meaning. It’s in these moments of silence that Tenz communicates and conveys the most. The sensation of waking from a half-remembered dream, bereft and between worlds drifts from every corner of the album.
Although isolation, separation and a sense of unbelonging on so many levels are core both to the album’s creation and its themes, Tenz was able to work with a wide range of artists during the process of its completion.
‘Nails Through Bird Feet III’ emerges to take form, a haunting falsetto rising through a rising crescendo of cymbal-crashing drums and strings that swoop and glide. It sounds far from euphoric, but it does feel like a release.
The bonus tracks contained on the accompanying 7” single reveal further facets of Tenz’s capabilities as the near-invisible creator. The gentle, almost whimsical acoustic folk of ‘Pisco’ calls to mind early Devendra Banhart, but it’s ultimately consumed by a swell of brooding strings and eddying currents of undifferentiated sound before ending abruptly. ‘Glimpses (Doubt)’ meanwhile, somehow delineates post-punk tension to a spectral form, an outtake from 17 Seconds captured as a half-memory, sketched.
Nails Through Bird Feet is sketchy, tenuous, almost impossible to take a firm grasp of. Its contents and form are illusive, evasive, barely tangible and certainly not defined or concrete in any way. Tenz makes no definitive statements and instead leaves everything hanging and half-hidden for the listener to untangle as best they can. There are more questions than answers, but it’s in engaging with these questions that the album, truly begins, not only for the listener, but for the creator.