[14 April 2014]
If A Scattering Time sounds like an emblem of a different era, that’s because it is. The final outing of vocalist Percy Howard’s Meridiem project was written and recorded in 2000. Label head Robert Rich, who additionally produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered the LP, explains that various independent label shutterings kept it from emerging into daylight—or whatever ungodly corner of the night A Scattering Time might occupy—until early 2014. So the record carries occasional trademarks of late ‘90s experimental pop: the contorted funk rhythms and looped drums of UK trip-hop (“Retinal”, “Blood Knot”), say, or the desolate string samples and spoken-word passages of Labradford-era post-rock (“Factor of Ten”, “Spy in the House of Love”).
Mostly, though, A Scattering Time plays like an emblem of a different era because it is an emblem of no era, a haunting and formless musical work full of pitch-dark textural turns, proggy rhythmic tremors, and a wailing vocal thrust that carries each of its songs into their own sickly place of dread. There is one consistent focal point throughout: it’s Howard’s classically trained voice that weaves through the record’s various stylistic turns, a silky, operatic presence that is as comfortable sharing sonic space with a remarkable wah-wah wail on the highlight “Blood Knot” as it is trembling lightly over the cello spurts and military snare of “Breathe”. “Let me breathe / Let me breathe into your body,” Howard pleads on the latter track; it’s more foreboding than sexy.
One blurb boasts that Howard’s voice has been likened to “Nina Simone, Scott Walker, and David Sylvian”—lightweights by no one’s account. The singer’s skills are nearly if not quite sufficient to compensate for clunkier instrumental decisions, like the nu-metal guitar blasts that run through “Veil” (remember: we are caught in the year 2000) or the instantly dated drum loop that undergirds “Believe”. Those missteps are minor and largely consumed by the pulsating, eclectic weight of the LP.
None of this is to suggest that A Scattering Time even remotely plays like a Percy Howard solo effort. The album contains contributions from several of Howard’s most noteworthy collaborators in the experimental music sphere, including Bill Laswell, Jarboe, Edo Castro, and Eraldo Bernocchi. Earlier incarnations of the project included Fred Frith, Charles Hayward of This Heat, and Trey Gunn of King Crimson.
But the press release is largely nonspecific about who contributes what and where, which only adds to the mystery of it. What is clear is that the album’s strongest moments are buttressed by guest voices alongside Howard’s. “Carlotta” spotlights female voices alongside duplicated choral echoes and haunting piano theatrics that recall Kate Bush’s last album, 50 Words for Snow. “Factor of Ten”, the lone spoken-word experiment, swirls terrifyingly around muttered descriptions of a body that may as well sprawl across a table in a morgue. Bluesy album closer “River of Fire” replaces Howard with wailing women’s voices and brightens the entire affair in the best possible way. (The album is in general a bit back-loaded: its second half eclipses its first.)
A Scattering Time isn’t an easy release. If the music itself isn’t bracing enough, the 13-year gap between recording and release will be. It places the aptly titled A Scattering Time in some temporal and promotional no man’s land. “I released it more as art patronage than out of populist intentions,” Rich told me in an email. That’s clear—but there is also enough richness and stylistic range on the record, eeriness and funkiness merged together, that there should be at least something for everyone. Few, though, will end up wading through A Scattering Time‘s heady 53 minutes, and that only makes it feel more like some strange, glowing secret, 13 years in the making.