Last issue on Free Space, I introduced my column as “a space in which we can freely examine our relationship with our favorite thing: music.” I then featured three records that challenge conventional definitions of music with beauteous results. One of these records, Dan Friel’s Total Folklore, explores how harsh industrial noise can be intensely melodic and hummable; two of these records—Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light and Haino/O’Rourke/Ambarchi’s Now While it’s Still Warm Let Us Pour in All the Mystery—demonstrate how process and performance can actively affect how we make sense of sound and its (physical and emotional) resonance.
Below, I’ve listed some more overlooked experimental records released earlier in 2013. In my previous issue, I highlighted records that primarily experimented with non-vocal instruments. In this issue, I will focus on experimental records with prominent vocal leads. Whereas Dan Friel, Colin Stetson, and Haino/O’Rourke/Ambarchi make lyrical statements through different vehicles of sound production, these featured records challenge our (listeners collectively) preconceived notions of vocal performance.
Pharmakon – Abandon
Abandon is a purge. It is an infestation. It is a cure. It is a routine. It is a rite. It is a sacrament. It is sacrilegious. It is a dirge. It is a celebration of new life. It is prehistoric. It is industrial. It is post-industrial. It is indigenous. It is apocalyptic. It is inhuman. It is post-mortem. It is incomprehensible. It is expressive. It is a drug, a synthesized substance; yet, it brings out that which is most human—bile, vomit, a scream. New York-based industrial artist Margaret Chardiet, aka Pharmakon, embodies and expels these dualities . Her screams on Abandon curdle blood and then chip it back into easily examined pieces. Chardiet turns herself inside out mouth first and excretes what doesn’t belong in this interconnected system. Industrialized tribal drums ground Abandon in some sort of primal musical instinct, yet Chardiet’s unabashed screech gets at a much more tangible human instinct; through these wails, Abandon is ritually stripped of any artificially applied aesthetic, and this is what makes Abandon so beautiful.
Portal – Vexovoid
Vexovoid is an evocation. Ok, I’ll stop there. Portal, a technically attuned group of death metal practitioners, is clearly in an act of elicitation here though. There is a method in this summoned madness, enough that I hesitate in my description of Vexovoid as brutal, chaotic, or tumultuous. Whatever Portal conjures up here, however, comes from far beyond and below what we (again, as collective listeners) have up until this point perceived as liminal. Heavy barrages of unfathomable noises assault relentlessly and arithmetically throughout Vexovoid, yet not in any remotely familiar pitch or mathematical form. Elusively titled vocalist “the Curator” beckons with an immortal, immaterial growl unlike typically forced metal vocals. Vexovoid is much deeper than metal, both philosophically and sonically; yet obvious prefixes “progressive” and “experimental” belie its infiniteness. On Vexovoid, Portal invokes some sort of impossibly gigantic presence. Because of this immense mystery, it entirely enthralls.
Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat
The Man Who Died in His Boat, Liz Harris’ eighth full-length record as Grouper is as intimate as Portal’s Vexovoid is abysmal. It is also as much folklore as Abandon is myth. “Folks” familiar with Grouper know her story and Man Who Died in His Boat isn’t much of an unexpected deviation: Harris strums her acoustic guitar and sings emotionally raw hymns inspired by her childhood discoveries (among these, a dead deer and a man who died in his boat and washed ashore near her house); all of this is then drenched in reverb in a way that paradoxically abstracts and magnifies Harris’ intensely warm performance. For some reason, Man Who Died in His Boat is Grouper’s most impassioned work of art yet. Unlike phenomenal ambient Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, several tangible melodies in Man Who Died in His Boat stick out and resonate long after it stops. Although this seems Grouper’s most concrete release yet, Man Who Died in His Boat is still wrapped in enough nostalgia that it retains its appeal with each listen.
Jenny Hval – Innocence is Kinky
Some will call and have called Jenny Hval’s art a “challenge;” an “experiment”—in short, inaccessible. Some will love her for this and others will remain unconvinced of her appeal. I, conversely, don’t understand—accept rather—why her work ought come across so damn impenetrable. Innocence is Kinky, her second solo record, does have an uncomfortable charm. Hval’s attractive quality comes from her exploration of thee most familiar yet most unexplored substance that we come in contact with on a daily basis: our bodies. On opener “Innocence is Kinky,” she calmly admits that she watches porn on her computer; she whispers these kinds of awkward confessions throughout, and then, when she can’t contain her secrets any longer, she lets it all out. Throughout this record, Hval screeches, screams, scrunches; her voice cracks, croons, cries; you can see her face scrunch, stretch, squint. Inaccessible you say? We make these kinds of sounds and faces everyday! Perhaps this uncomfortability with Jenny’s voice comes from our own insecurities with our own voices/bodies. Björk did a similar experiment on her all a cappella record, Medúlla and it remains her most derided release yet. Laurel Halo’s Quarantine caused similar uproar over her suppression of vocal reverb. You can stuff these aforementioned three records into this contentious box as well. These projects have all been called “alien,” but what could be more beautifully human than unrestrained, unadulterated, unfiltered vocal vibrations?
Next issue, I’ll feature some recent experimental tape-based and electro-acoustic releases, so dust off your cassette decks!
Free Space is written by Jackson Scott. It updates every Saturday.