Rory Storm makes a lot of noise. The Wellington, New Zealand-based experimental musician has never limited himself to manipulating or dismantling any one genre, instead deconstructing and reconstructing techno, electro-acoustic, indie-pop, drone and ambient sounds, and indulging in all manner of avant-garde pursuits over his career. He has released solo and collaborative works digitally, on CD, CDR, 7-inch and tape, and improvisation plays a primary role in his oeuvre—be that mining a sonic slipstream, an emotional concept, or a combination thereof. Lo-fi, or at least raw and immediate impressions of sounds and textures, feature heavily in Storm’s works. Like many a sonic explorer from around the globe, he doggedly reshapes sound regardless of who is listening.
Storm’s exploration of frequencies, both teeth-rattling and gentile, comes with a hyperactive reexamination of aesthetics—an ongoing process of elliptical ideas is as likely to return to a common point of origin as glissade into a harsh, disordered realm. His latest venture, Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue, reconnoiters the domains of dark ambient and blackened drone, with 21 untitled tracks bound together by an overarching theme. Bass, synth, three-stringed guitar, treated vocals and samples are the main units of instrumentation here, and with little in the way of post production, EQing, über-reverb and experimentations in volume and panning when recording provide the principal structural foundations.
Given that wolves are absent from New Zealand’s landscape, Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue seems to be a nod to universal animalistic and atavistic urges. Storm’s artistic thesis—which suggests that everything is up for reevaluation—is focused on the primal compulsions that inhabit us all. Deep-set fight or flight responses are not the privilege of any specific geographical location, so why not envisage nature at its most fierce and prepossessing. And, with that premise in mind, Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue comes with a sense of ritual about it too, as it proceeds towards a point of hypnotic abreaction—a point where the often repressed is given room to prowl, and to growl.
Lustmord’s 1990 masterwork Heretic turns up on Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue, with a similarly Jurassic tone. A Pole or Scorn-like hiss and drone, albeit with all the dub wholly scorched, is here too. In fact, a raft of ambient, atonal, dark noise, and droning metal artists could be cited—Kreng, Xela, Svarte Greiner, Sunn O))) and Demdike Stare—but only in the sense that those influences have been run through an excoriating filter and stripped back to their absolute minimal and elemental haunting cores. In truth, Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue isn’t really about who it references at all. Removing beats and amplifying unnerving synth and samples certainly has a long history, and this album acknowledges that, aesthetically, but improvised not mimicked recordings set around a common theme are the crux here.
There are, of course, arguments to be made about any artist visiting multiple extreme genres in their musical explorations. Some posit that touching on a range of genres doesn’t provide the sense of depth that a permanent residence provides, or that there’s something unseemly in plucking elements uninvited. You only have to look at bands that take elements from black metal and reassemble them to see how heated those debates can get. The alternate view is that calling on different genres allows artists to harness immediate strengths (or weaknesses). They’re able to encapsulate what they see as the primary components and, more importantly, avoid being curtailed by stale, in-house restrictions. Such issues certainly form part of Storm’s surveillance of dark ambient and blackened drone realms, because Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue highlights the complicated circumstances of an artist visiting a genre that may, in part, conflict with his own personal philosophies.
For Storm, violence in any form is abhorrent. He’s an outspoken proponent of social justice, equality, and animal rights, and yet, here he is, operating in a genre and dwelling in a subculture that expresses plenty of violent ideas and uses savage imagery and themes to fuel its engine. Of course, there are plenty of other artists in the dark noise realm for whom violence is also repugnant, but there’s no escaping its presence, or its powerful influence. There’s also no denying that artists who have informed elements of Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue, particularly those from noise and metal, celebrate sadism and elitism as extremely positive attributes—ideas that Storm would find repugnant.
However, what Storm has done with Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue is circumvent association with the worst offenders by investigating rather than exploiting a range of dark emotions. The album certainly conjures a deathly white face at the window, but no one is climbing over the windowsill clutching a knife here. What Storm provides is a sense of horror framed not by viscera but by emotional elements. He doesn’t pretend that fear, fury or immense suffering don’t exist, but he doesn’t seek to inflict those horrors upon the listener—instead he asks us to reflect upon them. Auditory apprehensiveness and grim atmospheres are all here, but the monster at the window isn’t some gruesome beast from the netherworld. It’s our own sorrow, trepidation, and yes, our anger, reflected back at us.
Philosophy aside, with 21 tracks, Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue provides an abundance of grim potency. Malevolent threads—often the briefest snippets of low drones—squirm around in delightfully sinister recesses. The album is a gradual creep towards its final third, where the early ambience leads to 10 minutes of metallic, droning squalls—with the volume turned up, it’s an ear-splitting payoff well worth waiting for. However, clipping a few minutes off the preceding escalation wouldn’t have taken away from the album’s energy or impact.
Improvised sounds are built around a prepared thematic motif, and the unscripted sonics embrace spectral realms. Fathomless echoes emerge, disappear and reemerge, invoking gut-deep physicality. In much the same way as Thomas Köner’s minimalist works capture the disintegration of environments, the desolate mood of Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue (and its stark, raw musicality) provides a disquieting void, in which the beat of your heart taps a cadence of antiquarian frights and antediluvian fears.
Still, for all the suspense of Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue, of equal value is its ceremonial promise. You’re certainly not obliged to mine the album for trepidatious effect; in fact, it could just as easily be used to welcome an oncoming storm. Whether you use this album to contemplate the gathering clouds or to exorcise your demons, its strength is that it offers a choice. Life can be grinding anguish or it can be a source of much beauty. Somewhere between the two is probably the truth, and at its best, Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue provides evidence of both.
Nature can be horrifyingly violent, and human nature doubly so. Ultimately, Rory Storm seeks to explore rather than exploit that reality, superbly documenting the unease we feel when dealing with overwhelming emotions. Like the work of New Zealand’s most (in)famous experimental drone-lord, Campbell Kneale (Black Boned Angel, Our Love Will Destroy the World etc), Old Songs Sung in Wolves’ Tongue combines unsettling tones with an organic timbre, capturing hair-raising chills and profound, perhaps uncomfortable, realizations at their immediate source. The album is a slow creep towards encroaching darkness. Like the best dark ambient music, it conveys and transcends the fears we all share.