Bells Hill BH011, 2012, CDR & DD album, 31m 6s
£0+ DD (CDR limited edition of 51)
We Go Wandering at Night and are Consumed by Fire is a split release, split in the same sense as the protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club’s personality. Both of the projects contributing to this release are the sole work of one musician, although they possess quite distinctive characters; Guanoman is described as a ‘purveyor of doom-prog and math-noise’ (also as ‘avantelectrodeathspazzmathcore’, which is more amusing, but less illuminating), while Luminous Monsters is summed up as a ‘majestic creature, appalling and bewildering to human senses, its golden scales ablaze in the sunshine, its coils tumescent with sublime strength, its countless claws and horns crackling with crimson energies formed from the transmuted migrant souls of willing supplicants.’ It is also owns up to such adjectives as ‘psychedelic’, ‘drone’, ‘progressive’, ‘cosmick’ and so forth. Both outbreaks of self-description are pretty viable guides to the sounds of the two projects; whether this album really sounds like a collaboration between distinct voices is a moot question, but I can understand why its author chose to present it as such. The first and last of the four tracks are credited to Luminous Monsters, and are explorations of texture through the accumulation of continuities, billowing skeins of drone presenting vast, pitted, glittering aural surfaces; the two tracks in the middle are Guanoman numbers, and conform quite clearly to the formula given above, with a timbral character situated in the liminal zone between doom and noise, articulated through mathy rhythmic complexities, not ‘prog’ in a sense that a Rush fan would be pleased to encounter, but certainly progressive in the broader sense that has gained currency of late. However, there are continuities in the colour of the sound and the grain of the distortions across the entire album, and some listeners will think it is stretching things a little to ascribe entirely separate artistic identities to different dynamic levels and densities of rhythmic incident.
The arrangement of the tracks on the album, and their concomitant textures, gives it a structure that the release’s author accurately describes as palindromic, which is emphasised by the titling; the first and fourth tracks are both called ‘I’, while the middle two are both called ‘II’. They don’t repeat each other literally, however, and it might be that important aspects of the work’s meaning are encoded in the balance of continuity and variation between the pieces that share a title. The first ‘I’ is introduced by a gently escalating guitar drone, that is then joined by further voices that flank it in the frequency spectrum; the central voice begins to improvise melodically in phrygian and phrygian-dominant modalities; this is the ‘ersatz orientalism’ that Luminous Monsters self-deprecatingly avows. This melodic discourse is never the dominant voice, however; it does not soar homophonically above the rest of the texture, but weaves among the other strands of sound, colouring them as they colour it, in a kind of static, timbral polyphony. This is a music of the whole, not of hierarchy; in this it echoes the devotional music that gives us Western music’s best known examples of polyphony, an echo that is repeated in the vocal towards the end of the first of the two Guanoman pieces. The opening piece increases in intensity and complexity, modulating subtly between smooth continuities of tone and chaotic discontinuities, broken tones and hard attack points; eventually its lower frequencies drop away and it concludes quite emphatically. ‘II’, which follows it, and ‘II’, which follows that in turn, are characterised by complex additive rhythms, by unison riffing between bass and guitar, and by jarring, angular atonalities, in stark contrast to the predominantly consonant laminations of the Luminous Monsters recordings. The playing is tight, but the feeling is chaotic and loose; this is not about the concentrated precision of mathcore, but the psychotropic instabilities of doom and sludge, despite its interest in the compositional possibilities of complex rhythms.
The dark, chanted vocal that overlaps the boundary between the first and second ‘II’ reinforces the connection between the rhythmically active inner movements of the album and the contemplative outer movements. It also acts as a fulcrum, about which the album pivots, a calm point amidst the most disorientating dissonances and rhythmic irregularities of the entire work. At the very centre of this complex structure of sound is its most erotic, bodily moment, its most human articulation, and it embodies a sense of devotion; it speaks a sense of pelagic depths, of sonorities beyond the trivialities of everyday human experience. Those everyday confusions and ephemera seem to me to be echoed in the discoherence of the Guanoman pieces, bracketed as they are by the unhurried and enveloping soundscapes of the two movements entitled ‘I’. There is a true symmetry to the pieces; the opening ‘I’ increases in volume and density, but also in chaos and stochastic complexity. The second reverses the process, as though set in motion by the intensities of the two inner pieces, and gradually running down, its textures simplifying as its amplitude and density ebb away. Eventually it ebbs away to nothing. These transformations and developments occur so subtly that it is easy to miss them, even the transition from drone to rhythm; obviously, if you listen, the narrative of the album is unmistakeable, but the sound is so immersive, and the affective development so deftly handled, that the experience supersedes the sound.
This is music with a sparkling surface and a dark centre; it is a sombre, but not joyless, wash of aural and emotional colours. It is quite clearly a single piece of music in four movements, and although those movements would work in isolation on many levels, it is as a whole that they carry a real complexity and diversity of meaning. There is a powerful and evocative narrative in the entirety of We Go Wandering at Night and are Consumed by Fire, one that could read, as could the title, as an allegory for the lives of human beings. Closure is certainly a feature of the album’s dramatic structure, closure of the sort that human experience finds only in death; but the feeling of the work is by no means miserable or pessimistic, although, as I have said, it is certainly dark. The gentle manner in which it emerges from, and dwindles into silence serves to direct our attention to that blank page from which it, and we, arise, and into which we eventually are subsumed. In between, the timbral modulations and varied aural textures that are elicited from an electric guitar, and electric bass and a drum kit, are a model of clear compositional vision; to develop essentially nothing but timbre, from a single sound source, over the course of ten minutes, in a way that is consistently engaging, that invites active listening rather than the simple hypnotic abandonment proper to ambient music, is not an easy task. Guanoman/Luminous Monsters is very much aware of, and in dialogue with, all the elements of the sound: tonality, texture, timbre, degree of continuity, rhythmic density, are all quite specifically manipulated to achieve the tidal pulse of this album. The result is both an immersive and overwhelming sonic sculpture, and a rigorous examination of human experience.