[19 January 2010]
Carla Bozulich has explored the relationship between song forms, noise, and experimentalism for much of her career. Having contributed to a variety of post-punk recordings in the 1980s, she went on to found the industrial group Ethyl Meatplow, whose 1993 album Happy Days Sweetheart added an explicit and vital contribution to the postfeminist debates of a year that also saw the release of Björk’s Debut, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, and Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville.
Bozulich then proceeded through the occasionally riotous country rock of Geraldine Fibbers before releasing a series of albums under her own name, including a version of the Willie Nelson album Red Headed Stranger in 2003. In 2006 she put out the album Evangelista on Montreal’s Constellation label, famous as the home of Godspeed You Black Emperor and A Silver Mount Zion. Members of the Godspeed/Zion collective contributed to the album and its successor Hello Voyager, by which time Bozulich had adopted the name Evangelista for her group.
Hello Voyager, for all its raucous experimentalism, placed more emphasis on songs than Evangelista. Even the album’s title track, an extended piece of improvisation, held fast to a sense of narrative, not least in the epic guitar workout that brought it to a close. Prince of Truth, the new work by the group, returns to the soundworld of Evangelista, reveling in a more freeform presentation and providing a fascinating interplay of conventional song forms and more experimental tendencies.
“The Slayer” serves as a good introduction to this interplay, opening with two minutes of apocalyptic, doomy improvisation before Bozulich’s rather disembodied vocal enters. The lyric starts to take shape and the piece coalesces around a common theme, leading to a memorable refrain (“Am I here to watch over you / Am I here to destroy you?”). As with most of the pieces that follow, the “chorus” is disarmingly catchy for such scuzzed-out, broken music. What on first listen sounds as though it could never stick in the mind returns, on subsequent exposure, to haunt the listener.
“Tremble Dragonfly” is six minutes of hesitant, hovering beauty which drifts in on a sea of chimes, electronics, and deep, bowed strings. Bozulich’s vocal is delicate and touching as she sings about a “wicked flying thing” with a diaphanous melody that floats in the murky waters of the group’s instrumentation. Accompanying her, the band provides the kind of thick string-heavy orchestration that has become distinctive of A Silver Mount Zion and its related projects. Here, again, song form is paramount, despite or because of the ominous accompaniment.
Prince of Truth was constructed from a variety of meetings in Montreal (for which guests Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily joined the local musicians) and Los Angeles (where longtime Bozulich collaborator Nels Cline added his distinctive guitar), Bozulich herself being too unwell to take part in most of the preliminary recordings. Pneumonia-ridden, she added her vocals later from the isolation of her bedroom. Full-time Evangelista members Tara Barnes and Dominic Cramp, meanwhile, appear on most of the tracks and comprise the group that is taking the material on tour. A taste of how this might sound can be found on the reduced-band tracks “I Lay There in Front of Me Covered in Ice” and “Crack Teeth”, the latter essentially a haiku lyric strung out, distorted, and echoed over five minutes of drum-and-(contra)bass soundpainting whose skewed rhythm, frazzled electronics, and plink-plonk piano lend a sense of fairground menace.
“You Are a Jaguar”, by contrast, presents the large-scale group at full sonic attack, bringing a raging storm of noise to bear on what otherwise might have been a gentle pop song. It’s a thrilling ride and, as Bozulich’s voice finally emerges unscathed from the music’s assault, the listener is reminded once more just how good this group is at playing with the dynamics of mess and delicacy.
“Iris Didn’t Spell” makes further use of the deep string sound beloved of the Montreal team, with Thierry Amar and Jonah Fortune providing contrabass. The introduction seesaws on the bowed basses before scattered percussion enters and the song gets going. Midway through it falls apart and various musical textures are explored over improvised drum patterns. The basses plumb ever greater depths until roundabout keyboards lead the way back to the verse and refrain. It’s another oddly catchy melody from Bozulich, another refrain that sticks in the mind long after the music’s over.
Last up is the longest piece on the album, a collaboration with Jessica Catron entitled “On the Captain’s Side”. Accordion launches the track, which sails the distraught waters of minimalist electronic menace for some time before Bozulich and Catron enter, their maritime narrative supported by uncanny doublings. The voices continue, doubling each other, faltering occasionally, swaying through the channels of the song. The occasional uncertainty could be a reflection of the staggered manner in which Prince of Truth was made; more likely, it’s a calculated strategy to overlay the ebb and flow of improvisation with the uncertainty of speech. There’s a barely restrained brutality to this music, which seems always on the edge of something, either a descent into the abyss or elevation to some majestic heights.