The idea of America as a “new country” is so ingrained in most minds that it almost becomes easy to forget that it’s only white, “Western” society there that is relatively young. It also shortens the gap between the modern nation’s founding and the most recent century-and-a-half of rapid development, from rural ex-colony into the world’s premier industrial and technological nation of the world.
As such, the mythical, primeval history of what is now the USA only rarely trickles into modern life and culture. While there exists in Europe, notably the UK, a sense that music can be used to reconnect with primordial pre-modern societies and histories, whether real or imagined (sometimes referred to as hauntology), such a scene in the US is harder to pinpoint or even identify, maybe because of its size, or because Europeans only arrived in the 17th century and rather quickly went about reducing the numbers of the native population. Nonetheless, artists trying to probe the ancient hidden reverse under the concrete and bricks do exist in the USA, usually in the Midwest, Deep South or around the Great Lakes, and Mike Weis, drummer for hazy post-rockers Zelienople, has encapsulated this veiled territory with acute beauty on Don’t Know, Just Walk.
The album was created in the wake of Weis’ diagnosis with prostate cancer, and inspired by wooded areas and fields in Michigan and Indiana, where he recorded the delicately-applied field recordings that traverse Don’t Know, Just Walk’s three tracks. The title refers to a form of Korean zen buddhism, and Weis uses that faith’s teachings to muse on death and mortality in a way that is reflective, sombre and ultimately life-affirming.
The three compositions on Don’t Know, Just Walk form a sort of suite, with the track titles even combining to form an enigmatic sentence: “The Temple Bell Stops,” “But The Sound Keeps Coming,” “Out Of The Flowers.” The epic, twenty-minute opener releases the listener into the inner and outer worlds of Mike Weis instantly, as spooky, muted voices intone ominously over a sparse tapestry of electro-acoustic drones and crisp field recordings. The feeling is of being lost deep in a forest at dusk, surrounded by buzzing cicadas, crunching leaves and shades of something altogether more sinister. Weis takes his time to construct his music, slowly adding layers of instruments and electronics until, almost of a sudden, the air is filled with sound. Although percussion is used sparingly, as a drummer Weis not unexpectedly unleashes his kit about four minutes in, again methodically accumulating repetitive kicks and swathes of cymbal crashes until — blended with arch synth noise — they form a seamless ocean of unfettered drone.
At other times, Weis is content to leave wide-open spaces in his music, with only faint interruptions to break a heavy silence. These well-placed shifts in tempo and volume serve to enhance the atmospheric potency of “The Temple Bell Stops”, and a strange form of oneiric psychogeography seeps into the mind’s eye like a ruptured narrative. When Weis returns to the drum kit, first to hammer mercilessly on his cymbals before segueing into gamelan-like tribal percussion, it somehow feels perfectly logical. Mike Weis sucks you into his world entirely on this album, and in one track the spell is cast.
The rest of the album continues the motifs laid out on “The Temple Bell Stops”, with the 18-minute “But The Sound Keeps Coming” acting as a more docile mirror of its predecessor, with an emphasis on field recordings, notably bird calls. The broiling, contradictory emotions and innate darkness of “The Temple Bell Stops” give way to something more peaceful and relaxed, at least at first, before a strange ritual, embodied by more tribal percussion and crackling drones breaks apart the tranquility. The track carries the same sense of mysterious, untamed oddness as the first album by Britain’s The Haxan Cloak, as if this music is being generated in tandem with nature rather than in spite of it. If someone were to soundtrack the awakening of long dormant forest spirits in America’s heartlands, this is probably what it would sound like.
It’s not often that a musical artist will react to personal strife or difficulty by producing something universal, but Mike Weis has achieved just that. By braving his illness stoically and taking off into the wilds, he has reconnected with something arcane and mystical that resonates enduringly in the collective (sub)consciousness.