When I saw The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic perform in London recently, opening for Laurel Halo in an overcrowded club space, he did so in pitch darkness, illuminated only by looped footage of Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal dystopian masterpiece Stalker. I had been expecting something dark, given the heathen electro-acoustic slab of gothic composition that was his excellent self-titled debut, all moody string scrapes and Current 93-esque percussion slams, but this was something else; the acoustic, organic textures of that album were stripped away and replaced by grim drum machine beats, sinister electronic atmospheres and morose sound effects. The atmosphere may have been similar, but the sonic style of Krlic’s debut seemed a world away, the man having descended to somewhere even more oppressive.
The spirit of that concert runs through Excavation. After a brief intro, “Consumed,” sets the tone with dry, glum synth ambience and menacing vocal samples seemingly beamed out of London’s post-industrial East End, the first part of the title track kicks in with cavernous bass drum kicks and shuffling brush stroke noises repeated erratically under a fog of icy synths and a forbidding bass hum. At times, Krlic kicks into something resembling a dubstep groove, but it’s a fractured one, deprived of all momentum as slices of jet-black textures surge in and out of the sound spectrum. Like dubstep, however, this music evokes the dank, cold vistas of the U.K.’s urban decay. Abandoned warehouses and quiet car parks loom into view, bathed in the indifferent glow of street lamps and car headlights. And, as mentioned, there is a hint of dubstep’s mercurial rhythmic pulse, a clear structure, to each of these tracks, but Krlic neatly dissolves these suggested grooves into a haze of abstraction. “Excavation (Part 2)” is shorter and more driving that its counterpart, but even its hypnotic bass and kick drum patterns are quickly swallowed and transformed by arch industrial textures that wouldn’t seem out of place on an early Cabaret Voltaire or SPK record.
As such, Excavation is not an easy listen, with some tracks dominated by crushing noise and caustic drones (“Mara,” “Consumed”), and again, the imagery of Stalker springs to mind. After all, Tarkovsky’s desolate “Zone” doesn’t look too far removed from the more abject outlying areas of East London or America’s decaying industrial zones. Hints of The Haxan Cloak’s earlier work, suggested by the ghostly looped vocal snippets on “Miste,” creep through the cracks of Krlic’s dense electronica, like ghosts of the long-buried Salem witches he’s mentioned in interviews. This connects The Haxan Cloak more to the phantomatic post-dance of Demdike Stare and Raime than to “standard” dubstep, without Krlic ever seeming derivative of these forbears (he’s less rhythmic than Raime and less overtly ghost-focused than the Demdike guys). His approach to rhythm is almost minimal, a case in point being when the dense beats on “Miste” dissolve into something approaching the dark ambient drones of Lustmord (the British producer who once provided an imaginary soundtrack to Stalker with Robert Rich).
These divergent, yet uniformly bleak, strands are all pulled together on the 13-minute closer “The Drop,” a cinematic epic that features clearer synth melodies and crisp drones (including violin textures and “real” drums that wouldn’t have been out of place on Krlic’s debut), as if, just maybe, the sun is rising after the dark, dark night of the rest of the album. It’s a fascinating piece, Krlic moving surreptitiously through a range of atmospheres and suggested vistas, bringing the album to a close on an ambiguous, yet strangely uplifting note. Excavation is a dark, ominous and sinister album, but Bobby Krlic is too smart to focus solely on scaring the shit out of his listeners, instead using electronics and beats to explore the haunted past and uncertain present in ways that build on his previous output without rehashing tired “hauntology” clichés.