Posts Tagged ‘Swans’

Cruel Nature Records – 6th September 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

These are interesting times for Nadja, the ‘ambient / experimental / doom metal’ duo comprising Leah Buckareff and Aidan Baker. Luminous Rot was recorded during lockdown, and found a home on the legendary Southern Lord label. Released in the spring of 2021, it’s a veritable beast of a work, which combined metal with post-punk, cold-wave, shoegaze, and industrial.

Lockdown feels like something of not so much a distant memory as an unreality, and if by May 2021 it felt like life was returning to normal, the truth is that the wounds were still raw, and any attempt to move on as if life was back as it was before was simply a wilful act of delusion to stave off the effects of the trauma.

And with every trauma, there is some residual hangover, and you might say that Labyrinthine is the product of that. As the accompanying notes detail, the material was recorded during the pandemic and concurrently with Luminous Rot, and ‘explores themes of identity and loss, monstrosity and regret, extreme aesceticism, the differences between labyrinthes and mazes, taking inspiration from Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan, and Victor Pelevin’s reinterpretation of the story of the minotaur and Ariadne, The Helmet of Horror.’

When a band chooses to self-release an album, it’s no longer an indication that it’s substandard or not worthy of a label release, and the case here is that Labyrinthine, which ‘this might be Nadja’s heaviest, doomiest album to date’, it’s clear that rather than consisting of session offcuts, it stands alone as a separate project from Luminous Rot, featuring as it does, a different guest vocalist on each track, and it’s worth listing them here:

Alan Dubin – legendary American vocalist from O.L.D. and Khanate and, currently, Gnaw

Rachel Davies – vocalist and bassist from the British band, Esben & The Witch

Lane Shi Otayanii – is a Chinese multi-media artist and vocalist in Elizabeth Colour Wheel

Dylan Walker – American vocalist from grindcore/noise band Full of Hell

With such a roll-call of contributors, it’s in no way possible to fee short-changed by the fact there are only four tracks, and ‘only’ is somewhat redundant when the shortest of these is almost thirteen minutes in duration. This is an album alright, and it’s an absolute fucking monster at that.

And while the CD release is on the band’s own label, Broken Spine, there are limited cassette versions by several different indie labels from around the world: Katuktu Collective (US), Cruel Nature Recordings (UK), Bad Moon Rising (Taiwan), Adagio830 (Germany), Muzan Editions (Japan), WV Sorcerer (France/China), Pale Ghoul (Australia), and UR Audio Visual (Canada) – and it’s perhaps noting that the running order differs between formats,  and I’m going by the Cruel Nature tape sequence here rather than the CD. It may be more intuitive from a listening perspective, but limitations off format and all…

This co-operative approach to releasing music is highly commendable, and seems to offer solutions to numerous problems, not least of all surrounding distribution in the post-pandemic, post-Brexit era where everything seems on the face of it to be fucked for any band not on a major label with global distribution and access to pressing plants and warehouses worldwide.

The title track is a lugubrious droning crawl: imagine Sunn O))) with drums crashing a beat every twenty seconds in time with each pulverising power chord that vibrates your very lungs. And those beats are muffled, murky, and everything hits with a rib-crushing density, that’s only intensified by the squawking, anguished vocals that shred a blasted treble in contrast to the thick billows of booming bass sludge, and it’s a truly purgatorial experience.

And then, here it comes, and it all comes crashing down hard over the course of the most punishing nineteen minutes in the shape of the brutal behemoth that is ‘Necroausterity’. In a sense, the title speaks for itself in context of a world in lockdown, and it’s sometimes easy to forget just what terrifying times we endured, watching news reports of bodies piling up in New York and elsewhere while governments and news agencies fed a constant stream of statistics around cases and deaths. It felt truly apocalyptic. And ‘Necroausterity’ is the sound of the apocalypse, tuned up to eleven and slowed to a crawl, the writhing torture of a slow, suffocating death soundtracked by guitar and drums do dense and dark as so feel like a bag over the head and a tightening grip on the throat. The recording is overloaded, distorting, and it’s a simply excruciating experience. And it simply goes on, chord after chord, bar after bar, slugging away… and on in a fashion that makes SWANS feel lightweight in comparison. It’s relentless, unforgiving, brutal, and punishing.

‘Rue’ broods hard with dark, thick strings and a heavy atmosphere, but it’s light in comparison. It’s dense, and weighty, but Rachel Davies’ ethereal vocal drifts gloriously within the claustrophobic confines and conjures another level of melody that transforms the thick, sluggish drones into something altogether more enchanting. It builds to a throbbing crescendo that is – perhaps not entirely surprisingly – reminiscent of Esben And the Witch or Big | Brave.

Wolves howl into the groaning drone of ‘Blurred’ and the guitars slowly simmer and burn: no notes, just an endless am-bleeding distortion before the power chords crash in and drive hard, so low and slow and heavy so as to shift tectonic plates and shatter mountains. Amidst the raging tempest, Lane Shi Otayanii brings an otherworldly aspect that transcends mere words, making for a listening experience with a different kind of intensity as it trudges and churns fir what feels like a magical eternity.

The sum total is the sound of hellish desperation, and while Labyrinthine may offer absolutely no solace in the bleakest pits of deathly despair, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an album that better articulates perpetual pain and anguish better than this.

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Young God Records – February 2022

For a good many years now, Michael Gira has been releasing limited-edition, hand-decorated CDs as stop-gaps and fundraisers, and many of these have offered skeletal previews of works in progress as part of the evolution of the next Swans album: indeed, some of these ‘demo’ CDs have served to raise funds towards the recording of the next Swans album. These hand-numbered, signed releases have become integral to the connection between the artist and the fans: while Gira may have long cultivated a reputation for being ‘difficult’ and ‘standoffish’, it’s become apparent, particularly since the post-millennial return of Swans that Gira has mellowed somewhat, but, more than anything, that he is truly appreciative of the continued support of a dedicated fanbase, and the effort that goes into these is apparent.

One friend of mine said he had stopped buying them because he wasn’t sure he felt the need for any more Gira solo acoustic demo discs, and it’s true that format in itself has become something of a standard: songs recorded solo by Gira with just acoustic guitar and voice, house in some permutation of woodstamp and hand-painted envelope, accompanied by liner notes and lyric sheets. But these aren’t just crappy CD-R efforts in a photocopied sleeve, but proper, lovingly-crafted artefacts that are more than simply about the music they contain, which may well explain the high prices they fetch on the secondhand market. But purely considering the music herein, to hear these demos while the songs are being developed is to gain an insight into not only the creative process, butt a glimpse of the future – or not.

Oftentimes, demos and outtakes are released as deluxe release bonus tracks or B-asides and the like, and one can compare the final version and see how it’s evolved, if at all; but to hear the demo before the song is finished means that the grand reveal when the album is released is an altogether different experience. Moreover, whole many artists’ demos don’t sounds radically different apart from having more fleshed-out arrangements and proper production, having been thrown together in a studio, these are raw, ragged sketches that are subsequently subject to vast revisions.

What with one thing and another, it’s taken me a while to get around to listening to Is there Really a Mind? It’s perhaps a hangover from the last few Swans albums, that were so long that even putting the disc in the player felt like an evening’s commitment. You can’t just leave, say, The Seer or To Be Kind rolling along as background music while you’re working, or think ‘I’ll just play half an hour of this while I’m cooking dinner’. This is, perhaps, the dichotomy of the album experience and the listening span of the modern listener, but then, concentrating long enough to listen to an album that lasts maybe forty-five minutes versus \an album that runs for the best part of two hours is an altogether different matter.

The compositions on Is there Really a Mind? feel more evolved than those on many of the previous demo discs – and a fair few of them are already pretty damn long. The opening triptych of ‘Paradise is Mine’; ‘The Beggar’; and ‘The Parasite’ runs for the best part of half an hour, with the shortest being barely shy of seven minutes, and they find Gira in his most drawling, droning, ominously spiritual mode. Lyrically, perhaps any shift is less obvious, with many of Gira’s longstanding themes being explored.

Across the ten songs on Is there Really a Mind? there’s a real sense of Gira building long, throbbing sounds that aren’t really riffs or motifs, and the three-chord repetitions that are his trademark have faded to even less overtly structured forms as he batters away at a single, indistinct chord that’s more of a drone than a tune, for the duration. It’s hard and harrowing, and while full arrangements will make an immense difference to how the songs actually work, these versions are like the darkest, bleakest country tunes, hewn from the bowels of hell – as if the evangelical elements of Children of God had been distilled by demons.

It feels like I’ve been listening to this all night, and still it’s only the third song, and truth be told, it is a slog and without the textures and layers of proper arrangements, it’s hard to imagine slapping this on to fill some time and air, ever.

It’s a measure of an album’s cheer level when a song entitled ‘Los Angeles City of Death’ is one of the more uplifting tunes. ‘Why Can’t I Have What I Want When I want It?’ isn’t a song demolishing the instant gratification of consumer culture, but another exploration of suppliance, dominance, and devourment, and it’s fair to say that whatever the musical progressions, Gira’s words remain focused on blood and bone and pain and the stuff that hurts.

Is there Really a Mind? may just be acoustic demos, but it’s immense.

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Tartarus Records – 25 February 2022

James Wells

Dark Worship came together in what they describe as ‘the bleak and unsettling landscape of the post-industrial American Midwest’ and is less of a band and more of a collective of musicians from various bands, co-ordinated by J. Meyers (Axioma, Aureae Crucis). They pitch their sound as dark, and it is, but this is a different kind of dark: Flesh of a Saint has the murky lo-fi production values of black metal, which serves the bleak atmospherics well, but it’s not metal, and nor is it dark ambient or tethered to any specific or clear genre.

The two-and-a-half-minute shock of ‘We’ve Always Been Here’ begins as an ominous drone before erupting into swampy grunge spewed from Satan’s sphincter: there’s a nagging guitar riff half-submerged in the mix, and a thudding kick drum stammering out a beat that’s on the brink of a panic attack, and it only gets dingier from hereon in.

There may only be six tracks with a total running time of just over twenty minutes, but over its duration, Dark Worship live up to their name: punishing percussion hammers and clatters before giving way to doomy, funeral synth drones to provide the backing to harsh, shouted vocals on ‘Culling Song’, and it evokes the mangled noise of Prurient. It’s heavy listening. ‘Hollow Body’ brings a rasping vocal, the empty rasp of the walking dead, grating from a purgatorial pit shaped by a pulsating low-end throb.

If the final ‘Well of Light’ sounds redemptive, the light at the end of the tunnel, think again: it’s more like being sucked into the vortex after the last drops of energy have been sapped from your limbs and you hang, lifeless, waiting for the end. Oblivion can’t come too soon. Worship the dark.

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Human Worth – 4th February 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

Pitched as being for fans of Primus, Lightning Bolt, Swans and Mudvayne, the accompanying text informs us that ‘Regurgitorium was haphazardly constructed with the sole goal of distressing and alienating their few remaining friends and family. Members of Warren Schoenbright, Wren and Deleted Narrative come together to deliver angular drums, discordant bass, and harrowing vocals accompanied by themes of existential paradoxes and day-to-day despair. The result being something best described as “Not Subtle”.’

If there was ever a strong and perfectly nihilistic reason to make music, that has to be it. It’s one of those hilarious band clichés that get wheeled out when they say they make music for themselves, and if anyone else likes it, then it’s a bonus. It’s almost impossible to not to be sceptical, because, well, fuck off. I mean, I believe Nirvana were sincere in not wanting international mega-stardom and that they wrote In Utero to get back to their roots and piss off casuals and their major label, but they still wrote songs to be heard by an audience – just a more select one. Of course, it depends on your ambitions as an artist, but I would say it’s better to have a small but devoted fanbase than one consisting of a larger but fleeting, fickle bunch of casuals whose interest will have cooled faster than their post-gig McDonald’s fries.

Regurgitation is not subtle, but it is high impact, and it’s a monster racket from the outset, with a clunging bass-rattling racket and squalling guitar mess of noise bursting forth with ‘Parapraxis’. It’s a minute and a half of total mayhem.

They hit optimal Big Black drilling grind on second track ‘Bachelor Machine’: the bass sounds like a chainsaw, while the guitar fires off tangential sprays of metallic feedback and harmonics, bringing together ‘Jordan, Minnesota’ and the intro to ‘Cables’. It’s a brutal squall of noise, and it goes beyond guitar: it’s sheering sparks off sheet metal that singe your skin as they fly, and it really makes a statement about both the band’s influences and intent. It’s messy, and it’s noisy. And it’s perfect.

Every track just gets nastier, more deranged. ‘Elective Affinities’ is all about wandering verses and choruses that sound like a seizure. Everything is overloading all the time: max distortion, max reverb, max treble, max crunch: the bass sounds like a saw, the guitar sounds like a drill, the drums sound like explosions: it’s intense, and it’s punishing, in the best possible way. It’s the sonic expression of a psychological spasm, and everything goes off all at once.

There’s no obvious sense of linearity or structure to the songs on Regurgitation. There’s a bass that sounds like a bulldozer grinding forward at the pulverising climax of ‘Bone Apple Teeth’. And then things go helium on ‘Wretched Makeshifts’: it’s like the Butthole Surfers gone avant-garde. And then there’s the stark spoken word of ‘Silentium’, which is tense, dark.

Listening to Regurgitation is like taking blows to the head in rapid succession. It’s not just the hits, but the dazing effect. Everything mists over, you don’t know where you are, and you’ve even less idea what the fuck this is. It’s bewildering, overwhelming. ‘Railways Spine’ is a nerve-shattering explosion of feedback-riven chaos and there is no coherent reaction. ‘Untismmung’ is the epitome of wordless anguish, this time articulated by means of experimental funk that yields to head-shredding noise. Noise, noise, noise: I keep typing it, and that’s because Regurgitation is relentless in its noise. It’s noisy. So many shades of noise. It’s fucked up. It’s deranged. It hurts. There is just so much noise, and no escape from it. Not that you should seek escape: bask in the brutality, the yawning bass grind and King Missile-like spoken-word segments that provide the brief passages between the blasts of noise, noise noise.

Closer ‘Vomitorium’ sounds like a collision between Shellac and Suicide, and the maniacal laughing at the fade sounds like the only sane reaction to all this madness.

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Southern Lord (CD/DL) | Pomperipossa Records (LP – Europe) – 14th January 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

Perhaps the last thing one would expect to find being released on Southern Lord is a live jazz album. The label is, after all, home to much to the rawest, loudest, harshest metal and hardcore punk, not to mention, of course, the doom drone legends that are Sunn O))). But then, if Anna von Hausswolff seems like something of a roster misfit, it’s fair to say that her catalogue doesn’t conform to any obvious jazz tropes either.

The performance, from 2018, as the notes advise, features six fan-favourites from the two beloved albums; The Miraculous and Dead Magic, with the backing of a full band including additional vocals from her sister / cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, and it’s ‘The Truth, The Glow, The Fall’ from Dead Magic, which opens the set in mesmerizingly hypnotic style. Against widescreen drones and rumbles, von Hausswolff’s vocal soar and swoop operatically. It’s a powerful and compelling start which paves the way for the grandiose expanse of creeping fear that is ‘Pomperipossa’ from The Miraculous.

‘The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra’ slows to a crawl with a Swans-like dirge centred around a simple, trudging repetition of bass and drum, and it’s here that things really take a turn for the heavy and the intensity builds. This rendition reminds me of the epic take on ‘Your Salvation’ by Foetus on the Male live album, grinding away at a single chord and hammering it into the ground before blossoming into something jaw-droppingly magnificent, and there simply are no words.

From hereon in, things only become more intense, more spectacular, with the brooding atmospheric ‘Ugly and Vengeful’ stretching out to almost twenty minutes, and leads the listener through an epic journey through a succession of sonic terrains. It’s a clear centrepiece within a set of vast sonic and emotional scale. It’s far, far beyond the domains of jazz, and even beyond the domain of ‘mere’ music: this is transportation and transcendental, taking you beyond the physical world and out of your own space to one beyond imagination. What’s perhaps most impressive is that this is all live; there’s no studio tweaking or trickery, but musicians conjuring pure aural alchemy in real-time.

After the delicate respite of ‘Källans återuppståndelse’, the fifteen-minute ‘Come Wander With Me Deliverance’ brings a suitably epic finale. The backing may be sparse at first, but the understated, almost wispy drones place von Hausswolff spectacular vocals to the fore. Then, when the drums and megalithic guitars crash in, they really do bring the weight. Yet the vocals remain the dominant force, and it builds – and builds, and builds – to a monumental crescendo. To have actually been there! The recording does a superb job of conveying just how gargantuan that finish would have been, and while there truly is no substitute for being in close proximity to a band working together, witnessing that connection and intuition as it flickers like electricity across the stage, and nothing can touch the experience of hearing, and feeling, music at gig volume as it vibrates the bones, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival comes very, very close.

We’re days into January, but it’s unlikely there’ll be a better live album this year.

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Edelfaul Recordings – 5th June 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Just as you should – at least ideally – never judge a book – or an album – by its cover, so you should never judge a musical project by its geographical origin, or judge the population by their government. This is particularly important as a point of note right now, and especially in context of this release. At home, we’re often led to believe that arts are of a lesser importance in the face of a pandemic or any other crisis, but history – and social media – will tell you otherwise: the natural human response to any trauma or crisis is to immerse oneself in either the creation or consumption of art or music. When bombs are dropping, people write poetry. It’s both a coping mechanism and a means of documenting events, and there is a clear logic to it: for me, writing helps to order things, both events and my own thoughts. The very act of writing gives mental effluvia a sort of solidity.

Spirit Skinned, the press release informs us, is ‘a duo rooted in the musical underground of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’ and goes on to note that ‘The area is known worldwide as a high tension zone, and the small musical scene that bred Spirit Skinned enjoys a reputation for an uncompromising and often radical sound approach, paired with a rare level of perfectionism. If anything, their music lives up to that notoriety.’

Watching the news, one would be forgiven for being shocked and amazed that there would be any kind of music scene in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, let an underground one. But even during sporadic war, life does go on, and citizens are always desperate to maintain some sensed of normality, and this is clearly true of Ben Ronen (aka diburnagua), former vocalist in various punk and noise projects in the Tel Aviv area and Ofer Tisser, producer/instrumentalist and a central figure in Jerusalem’s underground music scene, who have come together as Spirit Skinned.

The pair’s eponymous debut is pitched as ‘spanning the gaps between grime, industrial, hardcore, musique concrete, politics and expressionism’, and across the course of the album’s seven tracks, Spirit Skinned wanders far and wide stylistically. And you can’t criticise an album for any lack of focus when its focus is set so wide.

Many of Ronan’s crazed, yelping, barking vocals are largely impenetrable, and often partially submerged beneath layers of noise, not least of all highly dominant percussion: heavy industrial clanks and cracks dominant, but then again there are swamps of alternative and buoyant indie lurking in the mix.

‘Dry Season’ introduces the album with a slice of minimal DIY that’s brittle, spiky, and more than just a bit quirky, and lands somewhere between Young Marble Giants and Einstürzende Neubauten. Reverb bounces all over the place, while a slow, lowdown bass squirms away. They conjure seme tense and atmospheric scenes, and the claustrophobic, repetitious throb of ‘Leaving Room’ evokes the impotent rage of early Swans: it’s the sound of frustration vented through shouting into the void against a backdrop of music that bludgeons. ‘The Root’ is built around a monotonous pulsation that passes a significant nod in the direction of Suicide, but then there’s braying free jazz sax all over the top of it, and in combination, they’re pretty punishing. There’s a physicality to the music that’s affecting as they lunge from doomy drone to fractured, splintering harsh noise.

The album’s final track, the eleven-minute ‘Once Was Blind’ is sprawling monstrous hybrid of dark hip-hop, jazz, and psychosis. It’s like a beat poetry night on a bad trip. It’s a suitably weird end to a weird album, and one that’s well worth hearing.

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Miasmah Recordings – 16th April 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

It was the heavyweight score of his debut album, Hold, that provided my introduction to the work of James Welburn, and very much piqued my interest – because in some way, sonically at least, it seems I like to be published. Almost six years to the year on, Welburn delivers another immensely heavy set with Sleeper in the Void.

According to the accompanying blurb, the album ‘feels like a story in two parts, rising lethargically, but with gargantuan power. The second begins with the momentous In and out of Blue, where Juliana Venter’s disembodied, spectral dirge takes center stage among the furious drums and bassy riffs, reaching a full crescendo with seconds to go. Parallel marks a release – Hilde Marie Holsen’s nostalgic soundscapes, pristine as glass, meeting the distant thunder of Welburn’s strings on the horizon. And finally, Fast Moon ends the record in a most surprising way – a tribal industrialized banger, complete with vile distorted beats and every other spice in demand on a blackened dancefloor.’

It’s intense from the outset, and ‘Raze’ is anything but lethargic. It begins with a modestly middling dark ambient drone, but before long, pattering drums are hammering like machine-gun fire and whipping up a frenzy while all around the drones increase in volume and intensity until there’s a veritable cyclone of sound raging all about. The experience is dizzying, suffocating.

The percussion is again punishing on ‘Falling from Time’, but while the sound is still dense and murky, the thundering rhythm, is far more mechanised, more industrial, thudding in a furious frenzy amidst an impenetrable smog of sound. The tempo is fast, and it’s relentless: you could perhaps even dance to it, although that’s not so much my thing: instead, I found my pulse accelerating and a glow of perspiration as the tension grows. Finally, the synths break into a softer swirl, although there are ominous tones eddying around as the drums finally peter out and it’s finally possible to catch your breath and compose yourself. It’s but a brief respite before crushing percussion crashes in on the doomy dirge of the title track: stuttering, stop-start detonations cut through the shoegaze on ketamine crawl of the blurred blizzard of extraneous noise.

Julia Ventner’s vocal on ‘In and Out of Blue’ and ‘Fast Moon’ (the latter of which is a grating, bulbous bass-driven beast of a cut that loops and lunged in a trill of treble and a crackle of fizzing distortion) are haunting, ghostly, and pitched against the lurching cacophony of drums and juddering blasts of noise that hit like a taser to the abdomen, it’s not only a contrast and a change of atmosphere her presence brings, but a new level of trembling intensity.

Sleeper in the Void unquestionably makes an evolution for Welburn: while incorporating many of the same elements fundamentally, their application is quite different on Sleeper in the Void in comparison to its predecessor. The basslines are less overtly structured, and Sleeper in the Void sees Welburn move further from any loose conventions of ‘rock’ toward something more abstract. It may be less direct, less bludgeoning, less reminiscent of early Swans, but it’s certainly no less intense or powerful, and it’s still dense and percussion-driven. If anything, the greater sense of nuance and Welburn’s expanded palette only amplify its menacing resonance, making Sleeper in the Void an album that may be challenging, but achieves optimum impact.

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Southern Lord – 23rd April 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Canadian trio BIG | BRAVE return bolder, heavier, and more intense than ever on Vital. But when to start?

I seem to recall an essay by William Burroughs which contained the advice for writers that narrative had to be visual in order to work – meaning that writing about a ‘indescribable monster’ just wouldn’t cut it: readers need to be able to visualise the monster in order for it to be scary. Writing about music may be a slightly different discipline, but the challenge is always to convey not only what the music sounds like – the objective bit – but how and why it makes you feel the way it does – the subjective, critical bit. After all, you’re not a music critic without providing any critique. And yet the first – and for some time, only – word that comes to mind to ‘describe’ the experience of listening to Vital is ‘overwhelming’.

The crushing power chords crash in after just a matter of seconds on the first mammoth track, ‘Abating the Incarnation of Matter’. But it’s the jolting, juddering stop / start percussion that hits so hard that really dominates. There’s so much space – and time – between each beat, that it feels as if time is hanging in suspension, and you catch your breath and hold it, waiting, on tenterhooks. And it’s this, the sound of a tectonic collision, juxtaposed with Robin Wattie’s commanding yet incredibly delicate, fragile vocal that makes it such an intriguing and powerful experience. As the song progresses, the anguished calling becomes a ragged, hoarse-throated holler and you feel the emotion tearing at her vocal chords, ‘dissolving each layer until there is little matter left’.

The yawning throb of feedback that fills the first minute and a half of single ‘Half Life’ sounds like a jet preparing for takeoff. And when it stops, it’s the hush that’s deafening and uncomfortable. The lyrics are actually an excerpt from the 2018 essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. And when the music ends, leaving nothing but Watties’s acapella vocal, they’ve never sounded more stark and intense. Once you become adjusted to noise, there is little more shocking to the system than its absence. And so it is in life: we’ve become accustomed to traffic, to bustle, to busy shops and offices, to streaming media – and when it stops, we struggle to know what to do.

And so it is that the dynamics of Vital are so integral to its impact. ‘Wilted, Still and All…’ is different again. The album’s shortest track is still of a dense tonality and substantial volume but manifests as a billowing cloud of grumbling ambience, and it provides a certain respite ahead of the punishing ‘Of This Ilk’ – nine and a half minutes of slow, deliberate, and absolutely brutal punishment, a bludgeoning assault on a part with Cop-­era Swans. The drums and bass operate as one, a skull-crushing slab of abrasion that hits like battering ram, while the guitars provide texture as strains of feedback howl and whine. The false ending halfway through only accentuates the force ahead of the extended crescendo which follows. It’s the repetition that really batters the brain, though: bludgeoning away at the same chord for what feels like an eternity is somehow both torturous and comforting. The third and final movement is rather more tranquil, but nevertheless always carries the threat of another wave of noise, which doesn’t arrive until the title track, a nine-minute finale that grinds out a dolorous drone, a crawling dirge where a single chord and crashing beat rings out, echoes and decays for what feels like an eternity.

‘Timeless’ is a word that’s so often used and misused in describing music, but with Vital, I mean it to be understood rather more literally, in that time stalls and everything – time, perception, and the world itself – hangs, frozen in suspension. While listening to Vital, nothing exists outside this moment, and everything is sucked into the vacuum of its making. You can barely breathe or swallow, and for the time it’s playing, there is nothing else but this.

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Hallow Ground – HG2101 – 12th March 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Norman Westberg, of Swans legend, has a long association with the cranking out of heavy noise. For over three decades, his style was a defining feature of one of the most singular bands, and a rare entity, namely a guitarist who was more than happy to bludgeon away at the same two or three chords for anything up to a quarter of an hour. I would even venture so far as to say that Westberg is a truly unique guitarist, and his appreciation and understanding of space is unparalleled – a player who isn’t only comfortable, but whose signature is a seemingly infinite pause between chords.

In more recent years, Westberg’s output has shifted towards a less abrasive angle, with a succession of solo releases from 2016 onwards exploring overtly ambient territory, through MRI¸ The All Most Quiet, (both 2016) and After Vacation (2019).

First Man in the Moon sees Westberg connect with double bass player Jacek Mazurkiewicz, who supported Swans on tour in Europe in 2014 under the moniker of his solo project 3FoNIA,.The result of their collaboration, recorded during some downtime ahead of Michael Gira’s two Warsaw shows toward the end of 2019, is five improvised tracks of richly resonant evocation. The pitch promises a work ‘beyond the boundaries of atmospheric drone, abstract jazz and experimental music [which] blurs the lines between the acoustic and the electronic.’

It’s all a blur: supple washes of sound painted in broad strokes provide the cloud-like ambient backdrop to clatters and creaks, and the occasional bleep and whirr. It’s very much about the contrast: Mazurkiewicz’s playing is versatile, with his double bass work ranging from deep, brooding sounds that are very much of the instrument, to sonorous booms, to the sound of a tree groaning and about to topple.

How deep do you delve into a work so overly ambient and abstract? At what point does dissection become futile? First Man in the Moon is an album that warrants space, and reflection, to breathe and to simply run its course – an album to bask in, rather than to pick apart. It creates a supple, evolving atmosphere of soft drone and a soporific soundscape in which to cut loose.

A hesitant bass emerges from the misty contrails of ‘That was Then’, and it’s ‘Falsely Accused’ is a slow, tidal throb that ebbs and flows… and not a lot else. First Man in the Moon is an album that drifts on, remaining in the background: it does not demand attention of focus. Attention and focus bring different rewards, but there is a lot to be said for simply sitting back, dimming the lights and sipping a whisky while the sounds of this subtle, nuanced work immerse you.

As collaborations go, Westberg and Mazurkiewicz make for a magnificent pairing, creating an album that shows a touching musical intuition: everything about First Man in the Moon simply flows, effortlessly, naturally, and creates a space in space – that is to say, a mental space in which to empty oneself. It’s rare, and it’s special.

AA

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