[15 December 2008]
Of Sirens Born is not exactly a new album. It was originally released two years back on Gameboy Records, home of the occasional extreme noise terrorist like Cock ESP, Jazkamer, John Wiese, Fe-Mail, Guilty Connector, Crank Sturgeon, or PBK—the kind that cause even the most oddball indie-psych freak to run for the hills. With the album’s recent reissue on Kranky, home to equally feedbacked but more meditative neo-shoegazer ilk like Deerhunter, Stars of the Lid, Roy Montgomery, Labradford, and Keith Fullerton Whitman, Of Sirens Born appeals to an expansive mindset.
The album is both harsher than the usual Kranky fare and less clangorous and violent than Gameboy’s extended roster. Joseph Raglani is a man without a country, left adrift in a never-ending wash of equally euphonous and dissonant oceanic noise, like the presumptive sailor on this nautical-themed opus.
Of Sirens Born shares a kinship with progressive film scores. In this regard, it’s not unlike the excellent 2008 album Challenger by Raglani’s contemporaries Burning Star Core, minus the Solaris death-trip sci-fi theme. This five-song suite is a singular voyage, full of dread, desperation, and jubilation. Rather than functioning as an extended crescendo from fear to joy, it explores the beauty in all of the stages of chiaroscuro within its travels.
The album starts, and proceeds fully throughout, with panels of drone and echoing riverbeds of manipulated noise. It’s a slow-burner, for sure. “Rivers In” starts at the mouth of the delta with unsettling frequencies that bare a slight resemblance to Popul Vuh’s opening theme to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (a film Raglani openly cites as an inspiration), or perhaps even something off Brian Eno’s declarative ambient statement Music for Films. Raglani provides far more texture than either of those forefathers, but never a gratuitous amount. The extra layers, like the uncanny off-key voices which greet the next track, “The Promise of Wood and Water”, are more like abstract narrative than sculptural bricolage. The devil’s in the details. Of Sirens Born benefits greatly from deep listening sessions.
The opening mellifluous tones on “The Promise of Wood and Water” recall Kranky mainstays Windy and Carl, but Raglani’s sustain pedal is sturdy and not content to linger about in inner or outer space wanderlust like the aforementioned duo. Instead, the song clatters about amidst various earthen trinkets, most notably an acoustic guitar. The guitar plucks arhythmically up and down chromatic scales like a wind chime while transistor tremolo bandies about in the backdrop mimicking crickets (oddly enough). This ten-minute piece is the album’s longest. It spans an intense build that never gets grandiosely cinematic, like traditionally melodramatic mickey-mousing soundtracks do. Even as the intensity builds, Raglani is restrained, twittering his knobs and daubing amateur throat singing upon the mix with a cautious hand.
“Perilous Straits” is more cacophonous than the previous tracks, as the title might suggest. The digital nature of the distortion here becomes more apparent as it washes like white noise white rapids against the song’s tumultuous tide. This is a suffocating shift in course from the intense euphoria of “The Promise of Wood and Water”. By song’s end, the first recognizable drum sound creeps in, slow and plodding, like one of those hide-skinned Timpanis used to keep a row of slave paddlers in time.
“Washed Ashore” continues the tempest of sound, incorporating the buzzes of telecom towers and exotic animal distress calls into the dizzying dissonance. “Jubilee” appears to be a sign of land ho, but its celebratory horns and joyous voices are tarnished under the crucible of the long journey. They sound alien and unnatural. For the first time on the album, the melted mesh of noise becomes so thick and coagulated (like Axolotl’s signature brand of transformative sound fusion) that you have no idea what sound to pay attention to—the ones that make you want to rejoice, or the ones that make you want to mourn. Like the album that precedes it, multiple listens will yield multiple results. And if that’s not a trait of an artist who belongs in a category all his own, I don’t know what is.