[25 May 2011]
Paranoia, not terror, is the primary timbre of Demdike Stare’s Triptych. The group, made up of Sean Canty (head of archival label Finders Keepers) and Miles Whittaker (who is involved with other Modern Love outfits like MLZ and Pendle Coven), seem in interviews and in write-ups to be amongst those in the past few years who are imagining a non-goth response to horror (films, fiction and particularly soundtracks) and the occult. Their name derives from a 16th century witch who stood trial at 80 years old. In addition, the band plays on plenty of hauntological signifiers. However, for a group with this much dark intention, there’s scarcely a trace of violence across the three 2010 releases collected on Tryptych.
To be honest, it’s this that has seemed like the constant missing element in all of this spooky music of late bleeding throughout the drone ‘n dread of record labels like Type, Dekorder or Miasmah, for example. Horror soundtracks certainly have their share of unsettling tension, but they are usually undercut by jarring jolts to the nervous system or at least an uncanny sense of wrongness percolating through the speakers. Many of the groups operating in this genre seem too comfortable in their skin, too busy examining the texture of the blood on the wall than imagining how it got there or why it shouldn’t be there (this stands in diametric opposition to black metal, which is all inverted crosses and howling axe murders). Demdike Stare likewise offer a slate that is so dry, one could confabulate horror stories upon it, but the adrenalin rush of near-death and the estrangement of being somewhere you know you shouldn’t be is somehow absent.
To a certain degree, Demdike Stare are more eclectic than their peers. Throughout Tryptych, the group shows a considerable range, finding a common thread throughout all kinds of atmospheric music from Oren Ambarchi-style deep drone (“Black Sun”), Deepchord ambient echolocations (“A Tale of Sand”), blurry analogue Boards of Canada-style progressions stripped of all but purely tactile percussion (“Nothing But the Night 2”), transformative architectural ambient house sound scapes a la Irresistible Force/Global Communication (both “Forest of Evil” sides), and Easternized tribal psych mysticism with faint impressions of Dead Can Dance (“Bardo Thodol”). That they do this using mainly a palette of borrowed sources and samples is undeniably impressive, as is the fact that they manage to model these disparate sounds into like-minded kin. As far as contemporaries go, though, Demdike Stare’s diverse body of work reminds me most of the extensive discography of Coil, but there’s something lacking—a dire eschatology perhaps, a sense that something vast is at stake—that makes me think I probably won’t reach for any of these three albums before I would go in for a Coil LP.
A triptych (titled here with two “y”s for some unexplained reason) is a three-paneled work of art that is supposed to be viewed side by side. Canty and Whittaker did not write these three vinyl-only albums (Forest of Evil, Liberation Through Hearing and Voices of Dust) as part of a single concept, but, much like a traditional triptych, they work because they are tonally colored in the same morose hues while telling three different types of stories. Of the three albums, Liberation Through Hearing is the most song-based of the albums and also the best of the trio. Forest of Evil is the weakest and most convoluted, consisting of two side-long tracks that occasionally meander in interesting directions, but too often get lost in murk. Voices of Dust lays more emphasis on dank lubricious or antediluvian drone and has significant heights worth investing in through deep listening. Each album is packaged with bonus tracks rounding out the albums. These b-sides generally make fine, if inessential, additions and do not spoil any narrative arches since the structure of the albums tends to be pretty abstract and nebulous anyway.
Demdike Stare’s most masterful strokes occur when they pull wild cards out of this formless ether. “Viento de Levante” is intensely sparse and desolate. Its major concerns seem to be situated out in the horizon, out in that space where the eye and the ear can be deceived or led to believe, the distance providing a lacuna through which the unconscious can wander. The title is a reference to a type of Mediterranean wind, but somehow gusts of Caribbean beats soon infect the climate and overtake it. “The Stars Are Moving” is all low-end pulses that shake the earth until a rattling percussion comes in and modernizes the prelapsarian ooze into a bit of sci-fi splendor, making something of a Kubrick transition.
“Eurydice” is a song of wild mood swings, as it drifts seamlessly from room tones to clinks on amphibious pipelines to stiff music hall harps through somber keypads on to backwards-masked ghosts stuck in purgatory. “Matilda’s Dream” is able to achieve the opposite affect. 11 Minutes of diaphanous tones aerated in a new age haze, its most off-putting element is its stillness.
Demdike Stare have all the right elements and the right attitude to make their experiments work and they sometimes do, brilliantly. Yet, it’s hard to scrape the sensation that there’s something a little inadequate about Tryptych, even as immersive headphone sessions reveal new levels of depth within the productions. It’s only when the occasional wrench is thrown into the mixing board, like in ““Hashashashin Chant”, when the maddening loop of chanting children becomes sublime in the absence of accompaniment, that anything seems to be happening in these sonic worlds that Demdike Stare create. All the trepidation, paranoia and atmosphere seems all for naught without something at stake.