The 180 degree turnabout by John Twells from what lazy music critic terminology might dub the “light pastoral” to the “pitch black bucolic” is not without precedent. The last several years of ambient laptop music have seen the poles widen. The sunny has become blinding and the bleak barely sheds any light at all. As co-chief of the trailblazing Type Records, Twells is one of the weathermen on whom you can blame this climate change, particularly his Xela project, which shifted from beach bum glitchery to Fulci-esque horror squaws with barely a bat of an eye.
After the rotting beauty of 2006’s Dead Sea, which could have been a soundtrack to the Watchmen mise en abyme Tales of the Black Freighter, Xela participated in a few collaborations and released a few limited run cassettes. Originally planned as a sound installation on fear, In Bocca Al Lupo is Xela’s proper followup. Far less accessible than Dead Sea,In Bocca Al Lupo works on a principle of subtle unease rather than lingering dread. The album’s invocation of church bells pitted against slow churning minor tone drones as an inversion of sacred sonic piety is an old cinematic device, but Xela buries his ringing tones in hallucinatory levels of echo that teeter on the precipice of total abyss, recalling Lethal Firetrap’s monastery-themed Excursion/Passage, or Coil’s How to Destory Angels if it were amended with field recordings.
Xela’s talents as a sound designer are unquestionable and were he to take over as, say, the audio engineer at Six Flags’s Fright Fest, he would cause no small amount of small children to wet themselves. However, as effective as In Bocca Al Lupo is in creating atmosphere, too little happens in the first three quarters of the album to sustain the dread. The dense swarms of noise in the latter half of “In Misericordia” and the ghastly voices embedded deep in the mix of closer “Beatae Immortalitatis” are joyous occasions to shiver, but ultimately the bar has been set higher of late for dark music, thanks in no small part to albums like Dead Sea.
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