Posts Tagged ‘Sparse’

Cruel Nature Records – 2nd December 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

Seems I’ve blinked and missed a while slew of releases from Ontario experimentalist Clara Engel since writing about Hatching Under the Stars in the spring of 2020. Then again, the spring of 2020 doesn’t so much feel like a lifetime ago, as much as it does another life. Released on 5th April 2020, we were only just over a week into the first lockdown here in England, and we had no sense of what was to come.

As the blurb outlines, the album was ‘recorded entirely at home / solo’ and ‘Their Invisible Hands presents 13 tracks of subtle dream-like beauty… A mystical work, mixing classical and dark folk wanderings with misty soundscapes, which creates an abstract, new world atmosphere.’ Self-released in April digitally and on CD, Cruel Nature are giving it a cassette release.

In a way, returning to Clara’s work now is a powerful, and grounding experience. What has happened in the space between? Everything…and nothing. As they explain in the accompanying text, replicated on their Bandcamp, “I’m not writing the same song over and over so much as writing one long continuous song that will end when I die.”

If the last couple of years or so have reminded us of anything, it’s our mortality. And the sound of Their Invisible Hands is both spiritual and earthy. To unpack that, the sparse instrumentation, which consists predominantly of creening woodwind, chiming, picked strings, and hand percussion, has a simple, primitive aspect to it, and the slow, rhythmic undulations are attuned to elements of nature, as grounded as the act of breathing. ‘Dead Tree March’ is exemplary, a long, expansive drone that pulses in and out, repetitively, hypnotically, a sparse guide to a meditation.

Engel’s vocals, meanwhile, are ethereal and other-worldly, with a primal folk leaning that moves effortlessly between narrative and incantation, both of which tap into that subconscious part of the mind that it seems only music and nature can reach.

These themes of nature and of the ancient, of thoughts and tales lost in time, are constants in Engel’s work, giving credence to their comment about writing one long continuous song. In this context, it’s easy to see their entire catalogue as an interrogation and exploration of a quite specific field. Engel’s world is one full of magic and mystery, cryptids and magic beans and magnificent birds which sing. These songs are steeped in atmosphere and wonderment.

‘Ginko’s Blues’ is perhaps the most overtly classical piece on the album, a sparse composition led by picked acoustic guitar that calls to mind a stretched, dispersed rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, as it’s slowly dragged into a sea of scratched strings and gauze-like reverb.

Dissecting Their Invisible Hands too hard is to misunderstand its nature. It’s not an album to pick apart for the various elements, or even to comprehend its structures, origins, or meanings: any attempt to do so is to demystify its resonance. ‘It’s all fun and games ‘till somebody shows you their heart.. on a platter on a stake on a riverbed rusted…’ they sing on ‘High Alien Priest’. The metaphorical and the literal blur unsettlingly.

You shiver and find yourself mute as Engel leads you through an array of evocative soundscapes. All you can do is let go, and to explore them.

AA

a0799919546_10

11th November 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

Yorkshire based Mayshe-Mayshe’s bio references blending ‘dreamy art-pop and electronica with rich storytelling, skittering percussion and infectious melodies’, and how her ‘deceptively simple songwriting – at once universal and deeply personal – incorporates choral vocals, vintage synths and the occasional hairdryer.’

Said hairdryer was observed in a couple of live reviews I’ve penned in recent years, in catching her live in 2016 and 2021, but what always stands out during her performances is just how deftly she combines an array of elements, both stylistic and instrumental. She’s by no means just ‘another’ loop pedal artist, but a musical who judiciously uses the tools available to conjure textured, layered, detailed works which are, at the same time, simple and radiate aa unique sense of – for wont of a better word – naivete. But equally, her capacity for understatement is a defining characteristic. The fact that while playing a number of regional shows to launch Indigo, her second full-length album, her hometown show in York on the release date is in a record shop/café with a capacity of about 30 speaks for itself.

Performing as Mayshe-Mayshe, Alice Rowan presents as not necessarily shy, but introspective, considered, contemplative and as much as immersing her work in reservedness, there’s a certain sparkle of sass and levity in the mix, as titles like ‘You Throw Lemons, We Throw Parties’ from 2019’s Cocoa Smoke indicates.

Indigo is simultaneously simple and complex. As the lyrics to the title track demonstrate, she’s given to exploring emotional depths by balancing the direct and the oblique to create an obfuscating haze. And, in record, the same is true of her compositions.

‘But I Do’ kicks the album off in a style that’s minimal and poppy and kinda urban but at the same time ethereal and shoegazy, with busy fingerdrums and a crystalline distillation of mood that invites solid and favourable comparisons to The XX.

‘Dark Mountain’, released as a single in September, is really rather buoyant, with a bouncy bass and busy lead synth and twitchy urban vocal delivery that’s quite at odds with the tense lyrics and the ‘I’m drowning, downing’ hook which speaks to anxiety and panic. I suppose you might call it a sugar-coated pill, but it showcases Alice’s capacity to pen bleak yet buoyant pop tunes.

In contrast, ‘Moonflood’ is altogether darker yet dreamy, in a Curesque way, while ‘The Colours of Anxiety’, which originally featured on the 2019 Long Division compilation, is looping, lilting, and easy on the ear in a way that brushes over the tension it channels via a stuttering beat akin to a palpating heart. In this way, Mayshe-Mayshe conveys sensation beyond the words, beyond the explicit, and does so beautifully, in the most subtly resonant fashion.

In many ways, ‘Eczema’ speaks for itself, an itch that just won’t go away, sore and raw, uncomfortable and irritating, but presented in a palatable fashion, and ‘How to be Happy’ feels like a conscious attempt to be uplifting – which is it, but there are strong undercurrent which are less joyous. ‘Zachter’ is another previous release, having featured as the lead track on the two-track Zachter EP last year. With its lyrics in German and its instrumentation sparse and gloopy and with a hypnotic minimal dance groove, it’s something of an oddity which sits apart from the rest of the album.

The title track, released as a single only the other week, rounds the album off in a hazy, intricately detailed style. Accessible, and often breezy-sounding and easy on the ear, Indigo is an album that’s rich in depth and complexity. It’s thoughtful and emotive and dark and tense yet still extremely enjoyable. It’s a wonderful thing.

AA

su49355-Mayshe-Mayshe_2022-1_-_smaller_copy

Shows:

Nov 10

Cobalt Studios

Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

Nov 11

FortyFive Vinyl Cafe

York, UK

Nov 12

Hatch

Sheffield, UK

Nov 14

Dubrek Studios

Derby, UK

Nov 15

The Holy GrAle

Durham, UK

Nov 17

Oporto Bar

Leeds, UK

Nov 18

The Peer Hat

Manchester, UK

Nov 19

The Studio

Hartlepool, UK

Nov 20

The Grayston Unity

Halifax, UK

Nov 26

Blues Night

Richmond (North Yorkshire), UK

Poole Music

AB – Experimental musician John Also Bennett – may be absolutely nothing to do with COVID vaccines, although there is something of a pandemic element to his new album, which, as the accompanying notes explain, ‘emerged from a bicoastal pandemic road trip through the badlands of South Dakota’ before ‘relocating with his wife (Kranky composer Christina Vantzou) to the cliffside village of Livaniana on the island of Crete, [where] Bennett discovered a method of translating his minimalist lap steel phrases into live MIDI information, which he then used to trigger different waveforms to extend the resonance of the instrument. This multi-layered generative process resulted in a collection as vast and bewildering as the terrain that inspired it: Out there in the middle of nowhere.

It’s quite a backstory for quite an album. The first piece, ‘Nowhere’ is a fifteen-minute epic that’s ultra-sparse and also immensely evocative of… nowhere. It’s the sound of a lost, lonely desert twang: notes bend and hang in the overheated, dusty air. Anyone who’s seen that cover art to The Eagles Greatest Hits – and we’ve all seen that – will know what I mean when I say this sounds like the music that cover really should house. That hot, red sun, the eternal road, straight stretching toward a bewildering horizon, desert on either side… It’s not about tequila sunrises and living life in the fast lane. It’s an image of desolation, of isolation, or being lost and alone. ‘Nowhere’ is the soundtrack to that. A minimal twang that reverberates across the dunes says that in time, without water, without sustenance, you could die out here. You are lost. So lost. And not just geographically. Chords land, in time, but they’re still the sound of desolation, of isolation, and they exist out of time and out of space.

The album contains four tracks (or five if you have the digital-only bonus of the instrumental version of ‘Badlands’), three of which extend beyond the twelve-minute mark, alternated with briefer compositions, with the four-minute ‘Spectral Valley’ and seven-minute ‘Embrosnerós’ are both ambience embodies, and serve as interludes to the big pieces on here.

‘Badlands’ is a beast, but also a work where very little occurs. Notes hover like spectral shadows, ghostly glyphs riding above the solid realm while feet trudge through gravel. There’s something steadily mundane that contrasts with the immensely spatial single-note reverberations. And it’s extremely appropriate. This is not an album of action or movement.

JAB is clearly focused on atmosphere here, and less is very much more. It’s haunting, and leaves you wondering, feeling as though you’re wandering a deserted graveyard, wondering… wondering.

It’s an album that explores both time and space and leaves you wondering if you have either.

PM007_front

AAA

JABB

JAB. Photo: Christina Vantzou

Composer and experimental filmmaker Christina Vantzou has shared "Kimona I", set to powerful and heart-breaking footage from Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist film, Born in Flames.

"Kimona I" is a sparse track with only a piano and one vocal present, echoed and distant as though the song is being performed at the end of a cathedral. Quietly melancholic, the track is somewhat at odds with the footage of smiling women, which makes the ending all the more impactful. Christina Vantzou speaks to the inclusion of the Born In Flames footage;

"Filmed in the early 80’s, mainly in the East Village, largely with friends, non-actors and activists, Born in Flames is a film about work, class & race divisions, and organized revolt. Meanwhile on No. 5, ‘Kimona 1 & Kimona II’ were written for workers, specifically low-wage employees at giant institutions."

About her collaboration with Christina Vantzou Lizzie Borden says;

"I was honored when Christina Vantzou approached me with her beautiful piece of music “Kimona I,” accompanied by scenes from my film Born In Flames. As we collaborated, I was stunned to see familiar images take on new meaning when set against her haunting, elegiac music. Thank you for your exquisite work, Christina."

Watch and listen here:

AA

gaHEv3Ic

Misanthropic Agenda – 20th June 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

I’ll admit, I was struck by the name when this landed in my inbox. Success! With an insane number of submission emails day, I don’t even open most, let alone play the albums attached. But then I learned that PWIS is Nathalie Dreier – who’s interesting for her visual work as well as her audio – and Dave Phillips, who’s To Death I covered last year – which deepened my intrigue. And it’s one hell of a cover, too.

Meaning What Exactly? is quite a different proposition – from pretty much anything, in truth. Presenting four lengthy compositions, it’s fundamentally an electronic album, but it’s far more than that, or anything. The title is a challenge, a query, a – what I keep hearing as a phrase in my corporate dayjob – a ‘provocation’. It comes down to ‘exactly’. The word is weighted; even without explicit emphasis, it feels emphasised, vaguely stroppy even. The addition is the lexical equivalent of a hand on hip, a raised eyebrow, a scowl, a sneer of condescension to a worker from another department who has no facts. ‘Yeah, do your research, bitch’, is what it says.

And who really knows what it means, or what anything means? Exactly. And what this album means – exactly – I can’t quite fathom. The titles conflict with the contents, at least, based on my lived experience, on my reception. They say it’s a ‘dialogue mixing treated field recordings with organic acoustics and digital sources, brought together in long trance-inducing sessions of meticulous audio de/construction and philosophical debate’. But how much of that is apparent in the end product? Well, that’ debatable.

‘Pangolin’ is otherworldly eerie: a booming drum echoes out through a shifting reverberation of spine-shaking synths. It doesn’t readily evoke aardvark-like creatures, apart from perhaps in the final minute or so when Drier’s monotone vocals are replaced by snuffling barking sounds. It’s weird, but then, what did you expect? I don’t know what I expected, if I’m honest, but probably not this. This is dark, disorientating, disturbed and disturbing, and even more challenging for the absence of context. Meaning is the end product of intent, of purpose, and there’s no clear indication of where this is coming from, meaning we’re left to face the strange with no guidance.

A grinding bass and muffled, muttering voices, whispering about fish all build to a hellish tumult of murmurs and doom-sodden low range hums and thrums, and nothing feels right. It’s awkward, and unsettling. You – certainly I – don’t really tune into the words delivered by Drier in her suffocating spoken word passages, not out of disregard or disrespect, but because all of it comes together to create a claustrophobic listening experience. Meaning What Exactly? is not an album you sit and dissect, or sit and comfortably disassemble or analyse. I find myself, instead, contemplating the meaning of meaning.

‘Us vs Us’ plunges into deeper, darker territories, with a grinding, driving bass worthy of Earth, propelled by thunderous sensurround drumming, with purgatorial howls echoing all around. It’s heavy, harrowing, and it’s that simple, tribal drum style that defines and dominates the eerie eleven-minute closer, ‘The House is Black’. The house is black and the atmosphere is bleak: the vocals are mangled and distorted and play out against a murky, fragmented, fractured backing, to unsettling effect. The beats are sparse, subdued, distant, yet taut, crashing blasts and ricochets. You make it want to stop. The clock is ticking. Your chest tightens. The nerve rise, jangling, fearful. It’s like walking through a graveyard at night, knowing there’s someone lese shuffling around nearby. Make it stop, make it stop!

A crackle, a crunch. What is this, exactly? Perverts in White Shirts don’t only excavate darker domains, but scour and gouge their way into the darker, deeper territories where tension pulls tight and tighter still. It’s the sound of trauma, of suffocation. Meaning it feels like a direct passage to the depths, meaning it’s dark, uncomfortable, like it’s almost unbearable at times. Meaning it’s good.

AA

a2108573613_10

Constellation – 20th May 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

The first collaborative full-length album by Automatisme (the Canadian musician and conceptual artist William Jourdain) and Swiss field recordist, ambient musician, visual artist and writer/academic Stefan Paulus, Gap/Void is nothing if not a deep, immersive sonic experience.

While the origins of many albums are largely unremarkable and barely worthy of reading, let alone comment, Gap/Void is a strong exception, and for that reason, it feels appropriate to quote at length:

Paulus approached Jourdain with a proposal based on his field recordings made during numerous mountain expeditions in the Swiss Alps, the Caucasus, and north of the Arctic Circle—documenting stormy weather, high alpine winds, avalanches, and sounds emanating from glaciers and from the insides of crevices and caves. Paulus created ambient noisescapes from these recordings by splicing and folding them into hundreds of layers of sound: an analog to the geological strata of their geographic sources. The resulting audio mixes, compounding a multiplicity of spatio-temporal excursions, were then further encased in drones using the natural tone series (the traditional zäuerli or wordless yodels of northeastern Switzerland), the monotonic standing drone of Lamonte Young’s Dream Syndicate, and the mass chords of early 1970s Kosmische Musik as points of reference. Paulus sent these extended ambient/noise pieces to Jourdain as source material for the latter’s bespoke Automatisme techniques, where variable tempo and glitch systems forge more overt minimal techno/IDM works.

‘Hey, how about an Arctic trek?’ doesn’t really sound like a pitch for a musical collaboration, and pitched to a TV producer, it would probably have been a series with its own self-made soundtrack – although for TV they’d have probably wanted some celebrities slogging across the barren wastes lugging audio gear or something stupid.

The first of the album’s ten tracks is the twelve-minute ‘Säntis’, where an insistent and overtly synthesised loop thrums against a slow ambient swirl before an insistent uptempo kick drum beat thumps in and for a spell things go techno… before becoming derailed. The tempos are all over, the ebbs and flows run in different times and tempos and before long it becomes quite overwhelming, disorientating as the layers build… and then everything falls away and you’re left with the rumbling sound of the wind scouring the bleak, barren ground. It sounds harsh and inhospitable, it sounds dark and unsettling, and yet it feels less tense and is somehow less agitating than the preceding pulse-quickening sensory overload.

Things do settle a little as the album progresses, and by the arrival of the third track, ‘Uble Schlucht’, we’re into something of a more straightforward Krautrock style, dominated by bubbling synths and motorik grooves. But, at the same time, it’s a soundscape of shifting terrain, of snowdrifts and undulations, crags and cervices.

There’s a restlessness about Gap/Void that means it’s impossible to settle, that keeps you on edge in a way. The compositions – particularly the way the percussion is eternally evolving, in a continual flux, more a series of palpitations and panic attacks than a pulsating heartbeat – are tense, ever-moving, with a flicker-filled urgency that offers little respite.

‘Blau Schnee’ goes all out on the deep bass and low-end murkiness, the beats and bass melting into one another, while ‘Stoos’ goes ultra-sparse and is so minimal it borders on the microtonal, before an off-tempo beat bounds in and trips the wire.

The pieces on the second half of the album are rather shorter, with none over the six-minute mark, but the sound and sensation remain similar, with crackling electronics dominating and beats that poke at the innards – sometimes subtly, others less so. But it never really lets up, and while very little of Gap/Void gives even the vaguest hint of its source and origins, it does convey a certain sense off desolation, of isolation. Soon, we will all live in desert, and it will sound like this.

AA

cover Automatisme Stefan Paulus - Gap Void

Fabrique Records – 29th April 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

On her latest project, Jana Irmert shrinks the focus of her thoughts and her music on the microcosmic – although that certainly doesn’t extend to the microtonal. What Happens At Night is an intensely-focused work that places the lens onto textures and tones, and an examination of the relationship between the physical and the cerebral. You may call it a celebration of overthinking, but ‘philosophical’ feels a more appropriate term for her musical meditation on life and death – specifically death and beyond, the part of the life journey no-one has ever reported on and will, one assumes, be forever unknown and unknowable.

The liner notes set out the granular nature of the album’s composition: ‘Like layers of sediment, sounds are being pushed up from underneath, floating away or sinking back to the bottom. At the core of the album lies a question: What will be left of us? While Earth melts, we go on. But eventually, there will be a point in the future where all that will be left of humanity is a thin layer of rock. While this may seem like a deeply gloomy prospect, it also carries a great deal of comfort: the reminder that we are only a small particle in a vast system so big that we can never fully grasp’.

This is the limitation we all live with: the inability to comprehend life without us, what it would be like to not exist. Much of it’s ego, but perhaps it’s also a preprogramed limitation. Everything is dust, and once we pass, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we become desert, and nothing changes: the world goes on… and on. And that’s a disheartening prospect; for the majority, our legacy won’t extend beyond our lifetimes, and the world at large is unaware of our existence while we’re here, let alone likely to experience any ripples in our wake. But even the world will be finite, ultimately. It will be swallowed by the sun in supernova. But none of us will be here to report on it by then.

What Happens At Night is dark and stark, and with just four tracks and a running time of less than half an hour, it’s perhaps technically only an EP, but feels like an album in every respect.

There’s a dolorous chime of a bell and a shrieking anguish of tortured spirits trailing like comets fading through the sky at the start of the album’s first piece, ‘Particles’, and everything simply floats and drifts. It’s ambient in the conventional sense: it’s background, you don’t really pay close attention while it’s playing, but it does subtly slant the mood.

‘Ashes’ is but a drifting fragment between the megalithic pieces on either side: it’s barely three minutes in duration. If ‘Dust is the Rust of Time’ is sparse it’s also dense, and a sedated heartbeat pulses uncomfortably throughout, amidst shuddering, gasping breaths of panic. You feel the anxiety at the passing of time; what have you achieved, and what will be your legacy? How will you be remembered in a world without you? It’s a tense, dense, gloomy sound, and you come to realise you are nothing, you’re simply here to go, and one day you will be but dust. Deal with it. And yet… It’s not a question of there being something more beyond, as such. And yet… ‘Stratum’ closes, and it’s the splash of waves and the quiet roar of a buffeting wind and the slow sound of the dust settling as incrementally, life returns to earth in slow, sedimentary layers, and each layer fossilises a period in time for all eternity. You may be dust, you may be forgotten, but in some form, are eternal in the earth.

Irmert articulates nothing specifically or directly here, but instead, What Happens At Night provides a sonic backdrop which invites contemplation.

AA

FAB097_front

Four years in making, Toronto artist Barzin is releasing his fifth studio album Voyeurs In The Dark. That the album is more cinematic in its scope and conceptual in feel than his previous studio albums can be attributed to the time he spent over the past several years composing the soundtrack for the independent film, Viewfinder.

Voyeurs In the Dark retains that cinematic quality, and at the same time infuses the music with elements taken from Jazz, electronica, rock and pop. Having primarily explored the quiet side pop and folk in his previous four albums, Barzin has expanded his musical palate, broadening his sound towards a more an experimental direction, while still retaining his preoccupation with exploring the  internal landscape. The uniformity of sound that characterized the previous albums has been abandoned for the expression of differing aspects of the self that at times hold opposing views and desires. This is best represented in the image chosen for the cover of the album, which depicts three figures in one body. The album seems to be the expression of not one unified self, but the various aspects of the self.

Voyeurs In the Dark sees the artist plot a seductive, contemplative route through city haze, shuttling between graceful glimmering interludes, with wonderfully atmospheric songs at every stop. On new single ‘It’s Never Too Late To Lose Your Life’, Barzin has a affirming and urgent tone, shade turning into shapes and motion.

About the track, Barzin explains, “I guess you can say I was chasing my own private white whale when I was writing it. I was trying to create from a place of not knowing. I didn’t want to know what the hell I was talking about. If something started to make sense to me, I knew I was on the wrong track.

The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote many years back that we must make room inside of us for these unwelcome guests that visit us every day. Not only did I invite the guests to come inside, but I asked them to stay and make an album for me. I have no idea what I/they made, but it was an interesting experience to create something that felt foreign to me.

I think this song and this video is a good example of what happens when you let the “other” take the wheel and drive the car”.

Watch ‘It’s Never To Late To Lose Your Life’ here:

AA

Barzin

17th April 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

There’s something quite surreal about the imagery of ‘eye gymnastics’: it’s highly visual, yet at the same time, beyond physicality, and as such, it possesses a cartoon-like quality. This surrealism extends to the cover art, too: what exactly are we looking at here? It’s the debut album from a Lithuanian duo consisting of Viktorija Damerell and Gailė Griciūtė, who first came together in 2018.

And so it is that these clues are also representative of the music: the words are strange, fragmented, abstract – but also not, with improbable and incongruous images, and the album’s first piece, ‘Eye Gymnastics’ could be something of a signature tune for the pair. It’s sparse, the beats subtle, distant, subdued, yet insistent as they pulse through eddying swirls of semi-ambient synth drifts, through which a spaced-out, vocal dreamily intonates lyrical abstractions. If surrealism has a certain preoccupation with dreams and the subconscious, then on Nothing Supernatural, Eye Gymnastics plunder that inner realm for inspiration and render it in such a way as to remain to the vagueness, the indistinct focus of the fugue state, the disconnects and strangeness of dreams, and recreates the way those sensations and images echo, hauntingly, in the waking hours which follow those most vivid of nocturnal experiences.

The title feels vaguely ironic in the context of the disconcerting, dislocated vocal treatments of the ominous and eerie ‘Tree Tops’, where a glitchy, industrial beat clatters in thick and leaden. Then again, it’s dark pulsations feel as much the product of a troubled mind as of anything supernatural.

While there are some significant leanings towards ambience and hypnotic drifts imbued with an ‘otherly’ feel, elsewhere, snarling, growling electronics dominate a number of the tracks, with ‘Sadness and Joy’ being really quite heavy, with a gloopy bass that whips and whirs and fizzes. ‘You Destoy Me’ epitomises this industrial darkness: the murky drumming pumps away with the palpating tension of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘March of the Pigs’, while the multi-layered vocals whisper and echo dark thoughts, and the relentless pulse of ‘Let it In’ is harder and harsher still, the bass drum a booming throb, the snare – such as it is – a smash of distortion. You don’t want to let it in: no, you want to shut it out, make it go away. It’s not pleasant, it’s uncomfortable, claustrophobic, suffocating. Sparse and spooky, ‘Bitter Night’ bridges the territory between Young Marble Giants and Throbbing Gristle.

It’s unsettling, a creeping burrowing into the brain, as if overhearing someone’s internal monologue. This is not what you’d really call a ‘relatable’ experience, at least for the majority. It’s not full-on horror, but it is chilling, challenging, eerie, unsettling. But it’s also compelling, hypnotic, and a quite remarkable debut.

AA

Nothing Supernatural art

Neurot Recordings / Gilead Media – 8th October 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Less is more. This is something that few bands appreciate or understand half as well as Kowloon Walled City. And less doesn’t have to mean less intense: if anything, it’s a major factor in the ‘more’ element of the equation. Instead of hitting the listener with hard volume, relentless drumming, and gnarly distortion, Kowloon Walled City distil emotional pain into something simple and direct, and in doing so achieve optimal impact.

Their last album’s crushing weight derived not from its pace or even its volume, but its sense of space. Instead of filling the air with big noise, each chord crashed down hard and rang out into silence. In that space, Singer/guitarist Scott Evans’ vocals conducted pure anguish and blank nihilism. No throaty metal stylisation or posturing, just a kind of shouting – a shout of pain, of psychological torture – the torture of existence.

It’s the space between the sound that they’ve explored in the evolution of their fourth album, Piecework – their first output in six years. Make no mistake: Piecework is fucking heavy. It packs some utterly gut-punching, seismic riffs that drive hard, and when they hit, they’re utterly pummelling. But it’s the bleakness, and the blankness, that’s most affecting, that really hits the hardest. In the first instance, it’s simply so raw, so unprocessed. With the vocals clean and up-front, it’s the humanity that’s at the fore.

Not that there was any fat on Grievances, but with Piecework they pare it right down to the bone, and then scrape away a little more. Whereas most of the songs of its predecessor sat around the five or even six-minute-plus mark, Piecework packs seven songs into around half an hour. In cutting back so hard, the effect if heightened as the grey walls close in tighter, faster, more likely to bring a crushing end. The effect is cumulative, and there are no clear standouts on Piecework, only a sustained slug driven by a low, lumbering bass. It’s a bass that really churns the gut, and it has a physical force.

The production captures this dark, dense force perfectly, conveying a sound that feels live, that feels real. Wish you were there? Hell yes: we all need a bit of fortune, and Piecework is both beautiful and harsh. When they bring it down to nothing but a single note hanging in the ear, I’m reminded of latter-day Earth, and it’s clear that space and time matter.

As the press notes tell us, ‘Evans was dealing with the loss of his father during the writing of the album. He found strength in the women in his life, especially his maternal grandmother, who worked at a shirt factory in Kentucky for 40 years while raising five kids. The album name (and title track) is a nod to her line of work—and her quiet resilience.’ The lyrics are at once abstract and packed with images. There are no specifics, only scenes, and they’re bleak ones, of claustrophobic confined spaces, of deathbeds.

And it’s no criticism that this feels like an album of graft: the rhythm section ploughs on, and on, relentlessly, as if their duty is pure graft, digging, digging, digging. In the same way that early Swans was the sound of punishment, so Piecework is a soundtrack to the brutal reality of production-line capitalism.

The album’s predominantly slow pace is not the sound of rapid mechanisation, but of soul-sapping drudgery, the crushing weight of negative progress. There is no respite, no detours to bathe in moments of human kindness, the idea that for everything, there are glimmers of light and optimism. No, Piecework is an album with no let-up, in the way that Unsane are unrepentant, unremittingly grey in their outlook and execution. It hammers and bludgeons away at the senses and prods hard at the frayed nerve endings, the space and dead air speaking to the emptiness that hits us when the noise stops. Life is short and life is cruel, and Piecework is the perfectly merciless reminder of that.

065653