[25 August 2006]
The idea of albums as imaginary soundtracks is, by now, something of a howling cliché, a well-worn metaphor stretching all the way back to Charles Mingus’s 1963 classic The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which, with its swirling moods and dizzying evocations of scene and action can—justifiably—be seen as the score to a movie that only its creator could envision. Since then, this notion has become an epithet within all too easy reach of critics searching for the words to describe any suite of tunes that seems to evoke images and situations, encounters and denouements beyond the physical realities of the music itself.
So, it comes as something of a surprise to find the press release for The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble’s self-titled debut breathlessly describing this release in all earnestness as “soundtracks to non-existing movies.” Is there some kind of mocking irony at play here? An acknowledgement and pre-empting of the lazy categorization the artists expect to receive from hopeless hacks in a hurry? Well, it seems not. The Ensemble, we’re told, began as a project to compose new soundtracks for silent movies such as Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lang’s Metropolis. Initiated by a couple of audiovisual and multimedia graduates, they attempted to create “visual” music influenced by the aforementioned auteurs, as well as The Quay Brothers and artists including Hieronymus Bosch, Picasso, and Goya. Phew, this sounds serious. Perhaps we’d better take them at their word and find out exactly what kind of movie they’ve imagined.
It’s a continuous shot taken from the window of a car cruising through an Industrial, urban landscape, somewhere in Western Europe or North America sometime around the end of the 1990s; it is dusk, shadows lengthen, the clouds in the sky shimmer with a sulphurous yellow tint, rain coats everything in a hollow, neon glow; there is distant thunder, cavernous mechanical rumblings, the whistle of a train, the sounds of machinery and commerce; there does not appear to be anyone on the streets this evening, no human faces, no passers-by; occasionally the car seems to speed up or slow down almost imperceptibly, but the landscape stays the same—ominous, unsettling, unwelcoming, a familiar vista of Industrial alienation in the late-capitalist era; there is no dialogue; we never find out who is driving the car.
If that sounds like the kind of art-house feature that you’d happily pay to sit through, rapturous and unblinking (Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny, anyone?) then, chances are you’ll dig this album. Musically, this scene is conjured up with simple insistence and minimal components melding the analogue and the digital: a brooding, jazz-ish double-bass line; sinister, tinkling, “Twilight Zone” melodies on piano or guitar; mournful cello; muffled, distant trombone; hushed, brushed drums; squelching gloops; subliminal, fingers-on-the-blackboard twitters and creaks; sheets of static and white noise. Think of a depressed and nocturnal Cinematic Orchestra and you’re probably somewhere close.
In fact, the comparison to Jason Swinscoe’s mutant jazz outfit is particularly relevant—and not just because of Cinematic Orchestra’s adventures in soundtracking Polish avant-garde director Dziga Vertov’s silent 1929 documentary Man With a Movie Camera. Running throughout these tracks, there is a similar devotion to the art of cut and paste—the “drop in and drop out” school of musical composition—stemming from HipHop’s rough manipulation of the basic rhythm track to maximum effect. But, whereas Swinscoe somehow manages to transform his tracks into richly organic extrapolations on a theme, here the tracks feel somehow colder—“constructed” rather than composed.
This should perhaps come as no surprise in the end. This album is released on Mike Paradina’s Planet Mu label—the home of steely, calculated IDM—while one of the names behind the Ensemble is a certain Jason Kohnen, otherwise known as breakcore maestro Bong-Ra. Don’t be fooled by the claims that this represents a branching out from Planet Mu’s usual electronic offerings. Strip away the warmth of the double bass and the cello, ignore the trombone’s plaintive cry, and this packs the cold punch of the most alienating electronica.