A Quietus Review: Freermasonry by Wold (May 7th, 2013)

The claustrophobic sonic realm created by Canadian outfit Wold on Freermasonry -initially released in 2011 on Profound Lore and reissued this year on Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint – is one where black metal, noise and industrial music all collide, in the process sucking out space and time like the air leaving an expiring corpse. The ten tracks all feature massed ranks of guitar, bass and percussion that are so monolithic and dense as to render most details of what is what almost unrecognisable. Unperturbed, vocalist Fortress Crookedjaw sustain this onslaught for well over an hour, the kind of determination that will thrill noise and metal fans and baffle most others.

If I’m making Freermasonry sound like a slog, then I’m doing it a disservice, because, despite how massive and immovable it often seems, hints of a profound musicality seep up through the cracks of each track, usually propelled by the gruesome, wonderful, rasp-cum-hiccup vocals of Crookedjaw. The album kicks off its implacable grind with the playfully-titled two-minute ‘Opening’, and several shorter tracks are dropped around the eight-to-sixteen-minute opuses that form the album’s core, presumably to keep the album’s flow marginally approachable. ‘SOL’ sets the ball rolling properly in this respect, as fractured, disjointed riffs battle with a wall of distortion over minimal beats that sound like they’ve been produced by the world’s most knackered drum machine.

Crookedjaw’s vocals sound lost amid this maelstrom, not so much accompanying the half-formed melody as growling over it, the man sounding like the bastard son of Burzum and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Wold’s momentum on ‘SOL’ (and indeed the rest of the album) is fitful, with none of the driving momentum one associates with black metal, sounding in fact closer to power electronics noise-makers such as Ramleh, or a more compressed Whitehouse circa 1983. Indeed, on two of the longest tracks, the scalding ‘Working Tools For Praxis’ and the more supple title track, the combination of dense clouds of high-pitched drone, fitful drum machine rhythms and loping sub-bass combine at times to sound like a muddy live recording of late-70s Throbbing Gristle, with a consumptive Attila Csihar clone taking the place of Genesis P-Orridge’s manic barks. Elsewhere, such as on ‘Dragon Owl’, Wold come close to matching the unrelenting wall noise of a Vomir or The Cherrypoint.

If there is a drawback to such sonic mayhem, it’s that such airlessness renders Crookedjaw’s lyrics, supposedly based on lofty themes like freemasonry and religion, completely unintelligible. One review I read of the record quoted some of the lines, and they sound fascinating, but I can only surmise that the reviewer had access to a lyric sheet. Either that or he or she has the ears of a basset hound, the lucky blighter. It rarely matters when you can’t hear the words on a noise album, because the best acts (such as the aforementioned Ramleh, or their erstwhile label-mates Skullflower) can conjure up their songs’ sentiment in other ways. With Wold, it feels like a missed opportunity. There’s certainly a lot on Freermasonry that will get noise and industrial heads grinning and head-banging, even if some of the shorter tracks feel a bit like afterthoughts, but metal fans may find it all a bit wearisome.

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A Liminal Live Review: Gravetemple, Cafe Oto, 13-14 April 2013, with Russell Haswell and Crys Cole (April 22nd, 2013)

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This weekend features the fourth -and heftiest- showcase thus far of Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ sub-label, with the SUNN O))) guitarist himself featuring on both nights as part of Gravetemple, perhaps his most experimental act (which is saying something) and which features occasional SUNN O))) members Oren Ambarchi and Attila Csihar. Unsurprisingly, Cafe Oto is sold out on both nights, making it perhaps a daunting prospect for the respective nights’ opening acts Russell Haswell and crys cole, especially the latter.

Haswell at least almost matches Gravetemple for loudness, which takes some doing. The Englishman’s set starts with some precise sound manipulation of field recordings, notably wind and rain introduced by glooming bell tolls. It sometimes evokes the sensitive, evocative work of Chris Watson or, to a lesser degree, Thomas Köner, but the weather sounds slowly dissolve into jittery flutters that may or may not have started their sonic lives as bird wing samples but, if so, are transformed here into jarring industrial thuds and klangs over which Haswell gradually layers pounding synth oscillations. Haswell starts his performance seated at his laptop, but as the piece pitches into a shattering noise climax, he rises to his feet, twisting the buttons on a distortion pedal as the barrage of screeching drone swamps over the audience. It serves as a taste of what Gravetemple will provide later on the first night, the sort of noise wall The Rita would be proud of. I’m not sure what some of the hip SUNN O))) fans are making of it.

On the second night, however, Canadian sound artist crys cole provides a remarkable contrast to the crushing volume of her fellow performers with a set that is strikingly quiet, to the clear frustration of some audience members (London audiences, eh?). Using several percussive (especially a brush stick) or “non-musical” implements amplified by a couple of contact mics. cole’s website describes “a fascination with microsonics that test the limits of audibility and intentionality”, and the ambiguity of the sounds she produces, bolstered by hissing vocal interventions, is interesting, at times even fascinating, but, as many have noted, there can be an element of quietness for quietness’ sake to music like this. The most assertive moments are when she rubs a microphone on a sheet of metallic paper, which delivers distorted crackles but, with cole clearly frustrated by some spectators impatience, the set ends too soon for it to gather any momentum.

The signs that Gravetemple have been planning to be as loud as Oto will allow are apparent from the sound check, which apparently drew complaints from the theatre next door and has the windows rattling as the punters queue outside. Despite this, there’s a great contrast between their two sets, with the first being ear-shattering whilst the other is more nuanced and ultimately nothing short of triumphant. On the first night, Attila Csihar kicks off proceeding by rasping ominously into his microphone (I can’t make out the words, and he tells me afterwards that he mixes languages and even his own invented words) whilst Ambarchi and O’Malley sit impassively with their guitars on their laps. Csihar’s vocalisations are typically dramatic, enhanced by effects that stretch and loop his voice until it becomes a sinister one-man Gregorian choir. When Ambarchi and O’Malley join the fray, they immediately kick into feedback-heavy, sustained doom metal notes at full volume, instantly evoking SUNN O)))’s cavernous take on metal tropes. The volume is quite simply deafening, with the notes held so long that the feedback shudders into one’s guts and rattles the bones. As the low, thundering riffs build and build, often in tandem, the music takes on the texture of minimal drone, with Csihar happy to sit back with his eyes closed and absorb the wall of noise. Gradually, O’Malley starts to crack out some repetitive riffs, whilst Oren Ambarchi distorts and mangles scatter-gun solos via an Electro-Harmonix effects pedal, throwing out metallic, almost industrial noises that only serve to ratchet up the volume levels. Meanwhile, Csihar refuses to let the guitars overwhelm his singing, his bank of effects twisting and contorting his vocals into a series of alien chants. When Ambarchi takes to the drums to bring the piece to a rambunctious close, it seems almost like an afterthought, the volume of O’Malley’s riffage almost completely masking his brittle polyrhythms.

Csihar admitted to me that Gravetemple’s first set was a bit too loud and ramshackle, and boy do they make amends on Sunday. This time proceedings are started with the guitars, and more of the familiar, imposing and loud doom riffs, with similar levels of monomaniacal sustain as Ambarchi and O’Malley displayed on Saturday, although with greater levels of understanding and variety. O’Malley once again unfurls some sturdy riffs, whilst Ambarchi almost transforms his axe into a six-stringed noise generator. Csihar’s vocals are even more imposing this time, as he has more space to weave his oblique narratives into the mix. Midway through the set, the volume drops, allowing for expansive, droning flourishes married to Csihar’s gothic rumbles and saturated moans. With a more subtle approach than the previous night, Gravetemple display the full range of their talents, enhancing how open-minded the trio is, and how they use metal archetypes as a mere launching pad to explore more diverse sonic realms. They slowly twist and re-build a piece that increasingly takes on epic proportions, culminating in a mantra-like finale where O’Malley’s righteous guitar playing and Csihar’s incomparable vocal turns fly ever-upwards, propelled by another bout of octopus-like drum thrashes from Ambarchi, this time properly amplified to transform the sound into an almost psychedelic workout. It’s all brought to a thrilling close when Ambarchi pounds on a gigantic gong, leaving O’Malley’s dying notes and Csihar’s final invectives to be drowned out by the audience’s rapturous applause. This showcase at times risked falling into self-indulgence but, guided by these three stalwarts, ended on a note that touched on transcendence.

A Liminal Review: Ambient/Ruin by Gravetemple (March 25th, 2013)

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Gravetemple is one of many side-projects of Sunn O)))’s prolific guitarist Stephen O’Malley, and it competes with KTL for the honour of being the most experimental. This is hardly surprising when one considers that Australian avant-rock and drone guitarist Oren Ambarchi, as well as the ever-surprising former Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar make up two further quarters of the line-up (when Ambient/Ruin was recorded in 2008, they’d added drummer Matt Sanders to the original trio). If all three have long displayed their metal credentials, something already well documented on their 2006 debut, The Holy Down, Ambient/Ruin showcases their ability to stretch the genre’s conventions, often to breaking point.

It’s not easy to immediately spot the “ambient” in this album, the “ruin” though, quickly jumps out from its twisted grooves: a sense of decay and darkness lies in O’Malley’s fuzzy, subterranean riffs, which are melded with moody electronic textures and Csihar’s black metal growl. However, the second side of four quickly establishes parameters that are far removed from standard “dark” metal, as sounds of running water and hushed rasps from Csihar introduce a seventeen-minute epic that is all about texture and subtlety over punishing aggression, with O’Malley and Ambarchi building up a steady, immovable drone on a mixture of synths and guitar that lingers heavily in the ether, pregnant with menace as Csihar’s apocalyptic vocals intone the blackest of sermons. If we can describe this music as “ambient”, it is ambient born from the ruins of metal music, as dark and haunted as anything by the likes of Lustmord or Soliloquy for Lilith-era Nurse With Wound, but with the steadfast, trance-like compositional presence of a Phill Niblock or CC Hennix piece. If some aspects of Sunn O))) can seem a tad camp, Gravetemple is nothing of the sort: the third side follows on from the second with a similar, albeit more caustic drone filling up the sound space, punctuated (punctured?) along the way by grim industrial effects and ever more cataclysmic vocalisations from Csihar, who might use words more than Hennix or LaMonte Young, but surely can be seen as something of an heir to their singular dedication to stretching vocal sounds into abstract realms.

A passage of near silence slices through this opening segment, replaced by an almost incongruous hum, like a fridge in an empty room (can a fridge be heard if no-one’s there to hear it?), as if the quartet is suggesting that ruin and darkness surround our everyday lives. From there, we are drop-kicked in the gut as Sanders unleashes a furious, typically black-metal blast beat and Attila rips his throat out in the grand old tradition of Nocturno Culto on early Darkthrone records. Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi still resist the temptation to descend into predictable riffology, however, instead twisting and transforming their feedback and synth drones into an ear-assaulting high-pitched tone that swirls around and above Sanders’s earthy pummeling like a malignant cloud.

Gravetemple are a difficult act to pin down, and this reissue only adds to the mystery. Ambient/Ruin is a hefty slab, yet it’s also elusive, moving through textures and styles in ways both disheveled and jarring, which might have something to do with the fact that each member recorded his parts in different locations to his bandmates. However, the way Ambarchi, O’Malley, Csihar and Sanders combine their talents and traditions to create a work that edges beyond metal and into the avant-garde is impressive (even imposing), and at times far more successful in this aim than anything Sunn O))) have achieved to date.

A Liminal Review: Visible Breath by Eyvind Kang (February 7th, 2012)

The (relative) recent surge in interest in the music of American composer and string player Eyvind Kang is no more than the man deserves. His phenomenal arrangements for SUNN O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions (2009) helped elevate the robed doom-metal “cave-men”’s sound to new levels of expansiveness and atmosphere. It was therefore no surprise that SUNN guitarist Stephen O’Malley returned the favour by releasing Kang’s Aestuarium (recorded with wife Jessika Kenney) and now Visible Breath (solo, but also featuring Kenney, amongst others) on his Ideologic Organ imprint, both in 2011. Meanwhile, Ipecac will be issuing his latest release, The Narrow Garden, at the end of January. So a prolific few months for Mr Kang!

Of the two latest albums, Visible Breath, recorded most recently, is the most immediately arresting, despite being sparser and more experimental. On the opening title track, quiet horn and string drones emerge deliberately out of the speakers, drawn out and patient in the tradition of the just intonation of LaMonte Young or Pauline Oliveros. Jessika Kenney joins in on vocals, her high keen fooling me at first – I thought it was a trumpet such is her precision and control over her voice! “Visible Breath” evolves gently, building its atmospheres in patient layers; however, it is far from relaxing, as some of the deep drone by Oliveros or Eliane Radigue can be, with strains of unease and disquiet echoing through the mix. Midway through the pace drops off, as Kenney’s voice and occasional strident viola and violin lines swoop and pierce across the ether, with Kang the composer toying with silence as a means of building the tension. The piece gradually evolves and dissolves, never breaking the listless groove it inhabits, even as Cuong Vu engages in some brutal trumpet “solos” that lean towards free jazz. As the musicians gradually drop away, a silence falls over the session like a sheet laid over a corpse.

After a similarly unnerving short interlude, ‘Monadology’, which features fitful moans from Kenney and rumbling horn and piano motifs under sudden screes from Kang on viola and Timb Harris on violin, ‘Thick Tarragon’, recorded after the first two pieces, feels like a slight parting of the clouds, as Janel Leppin plucks away percussively at a modified cello and a pedal steel guitar slides to-and-fro like a graceful pendulum. The drones here are lighter, but no less mystical -especially as the percussive sounds make way for more drifting, mellow tones and excoriating vibrations of strings- and on Visible Breath you can’t help feeling that Eyvind Kang is living up to Stephen O’Malley’s description of his music as “spectral”.

The Narrow Garden is altogether sunnier than its cousin, and features a near-orchestra-sized group of musicians guided by Kang, who is only credited as conductor. Kang describes it as “a concept of love, of poetry, like a troubadour or ashugh, courtly love that goes in two directions – one the more ineffable, kind of delightful […] and the other direction is the implication of a kind of violence.” This dichotomy is not immediately perceptible, as ‘Forest Sama’i’ swoops forwards like a clear ray of sunshine, all loping hand percussion and elegant string and flute patterns. Atmospherically, the album crosses borders with confident ease, as Orient and Occident collide, a proper melting pot that throws up Middle Eastern rhythms alongside hints of the European psychedelic folk of Yatha Sidhra and The Incredible String Band. But later tracks return to the subtle malaise of Visible Breath, especially the title track and epic closer ‘Invisus Natalis’, with claustrophobic, atonal string drones and colliding textures. The effect is almost akin to a film score, with a subtle and involving progression that feels like a narrative, slowly escalating to its dramatic finale, with Kenney once again displaying her prodigious vocal dexterity. The Narrow Garden may not have Visible Breath’s stripped-down immediacy, but it remains a robust demonstration of Eyvind Kang’s epic ability to distill atmospheres and ambiance with the power of an alchemist. His vision pushes geographical, musical and conceptual boundaries in a way that grants his music endless mystique.

Everything that has made Eyvind Kang such a distinctive figure on the modern composition scene can be found in these two remarkably different albums. They can be fierce, quiet, unsettling, graceful and calming all in the space of a few bars. A remarkable talent unfolds in the grooves of these albums, one that’s exhilarating to engage with as a listener.

You can also read this review here