Idlechrist Records 2013, DD album, 1h 2m 11s
I don’t know what this has to do with Korea; no more do I know why doom metal (or sabbathcore as it was amusingly described by the label when Korea was submitted for review) represents the north, and electronica the south. I like some enigma in my music, so it’s not keeping me awake at night, and I’m reluctant to ascribe any definitively programmatic meanings to the music. What I think is really interesting about this album is that it juxtaposes two quite distinct creative approaches, and presents them as a single artistic utterance. Whatever meanings the listener might conclude are central to the work must inevitably bridge these two worlds, or derive from their intersection. That in itself is bound to be thought-provoking, even if the music is straightforwardly visceral; and on the whole, this album is about its material impact, rather than any denotational content. The metal underground, in the UK at least, tends to comprise a broad intersection between doom and hardcore riffing, stoner rock and avant-garde noise, a zone where sound is valued for its impact on the listener, not what it implies about the competences or capacities of the performer; it’s an area that seems ostensibly to overlap relatively little with anything else, but most of its participants are open-minded, open-eared individuals, and there are fewer degrees of separation between such music and other underground practices than one might imagine.
Korea consists of two extended jams, one a sludgey roar of hair-raising guitars, and the other based on electronic sound sources. Although the surface texture of each piece is quite distinct, the manner in which their sonic materials is handled is very closely related, and the effect is to emphasise commonalities, rather than distinctions. ‘North Korea’, which is the guitar piece, begins with a reminder of its materiality, a wash of amplifier noise and feedback, out of which a thick, crusty guitar sound appears like a lumbering behemoth, and launches into a simple, monolithic, mid-tempo riff. The composition proceeds, from riff to riff, interspersed with episodes of noise-making and arrhythmic, dissonant thrashing; these passages of atavistic instrument-abuse seem like a sort of base state, a boiling, storm-wracked ocean from which the relative order of an ostinato emerges, and into which it is subsumed again, like the coils of some ophidian leviathan. This cycle traverses relatively few repetitions, but it is enough to communicate the sense of a circularity beyond the bounds of the recording, a sense of endless seasonal repetition more akin to the circadian rhythms of astronomy or meteorology than to the syntagmatic discourse of conventional artistic statements. There are vocal elements, soaring, chant-like tonal sounds, but their lyrical content (if any) is entirely indistinguishable. The second composition, called ‘South Korea’, continues with the theme of extended passages based on simple motifs, characterised by gradual transformations, and separated by relatively brief transitional episodes. The fact that is dominated by electronic sounds rather than those of a heavily distorted guitar seems significant at first, and becomes less and less relevant the more one listens to Korea. The sound lacks the sheer kinetic power of the guitar, which in itself is a deliberate choice, as there is no reason why electronic music has to be any less harsh or distorted than guitar music (just ask Merzbow); but rather than contrasting the smouldering, thunderous chaos of ‘North Korea’ with a vision of digital perfection, the electronic sounds are presented so as to emphasise their own materiality, with glitchy distortions and unstable transformations colouring the music with an organic sense of disorder. ‘South Korea’, like ‘North Korea’, pairs its tonal content with an improvising acoustic drummer, so the sound was never going to be particularly mechanistic, but it could have been a lot more precisely repetitious than it is. Its electronic elements are clearly derived from some specific source, and the way that they are employed serves to suggest that the limitations of that device played a major role in shaping the forms of the music. The sound is not presented in riffs per se, but in somewhat Reichian phrases that evolve gradually in subtle ways (although not by means of the rhythmic displacement popular in Minimalism), and the vocals are processed in a much more avant-garde manner; however, the impact of the sound is remarkably close to that of the first piece. The music of both compositions seems concerned with the potential of human agency to wring an infinite set of variations from a very simple set of technical and musical parameters.
The impression I get in the end is that this music is not so much a metaphor for, or representation of Korea, as the country is a metaphor for the music; if there is any specific meaning to be read out of Korea’s title, it’s related to the sense that for all of their differences the two Koreas are one country, with one shared reserve of cultural heritage. Why one set of sounds was chosen to be associated with the south and the other with the north is beyond the scope of my willingness to speculate, and to do so would probably represent an excessive reading-in of inappropriately specific meanings, but the listener is clearly invited to question the conventionally hermetic distinction between the worlds of guitar-based and electronic music. We are given an emphatic example of the same concerns and methods being pursued in much the same way through two ostensibly distinct means, and invited to reflect on the nature of that distinction. ‘South Korea’, it has to be said, bears far more relation to doom or drone metal than ‘North Korea’ bears to any established form of electronic music, except for electronic-noise or power-electronics I suppose, but even for someone to establish their doom credentials, and then say in a seemingly casual manner ‘yeah, or you could do that with a synth’ is a pretty striking creative conceit. The point is that these pieces are both full-body immersions in sound, addressed to the hearing body rather than the listening mind. That electronic music has its own native forms of erotic appellation is neither here nor there; dance music, however psychedelic, operates on a very different affective level to this stuff. When I first listened through to this album I put it straight in the ‘feature review’ pile, partly because it has an interesting approach, but largely for the intense impact it had on me. Korea is a transcendental hammer blow of an album.