Photo by Adam Garcia
In 1913, Italian Futurist and composer Luigi Russolo released his manifesto, L’Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises), arguing that, “we must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.” Russolo believed that the clatter and clangor of bustling cities meant that harsher, stranger, and more dissonant sounds could be readily appreciated as music, and he argued that the noise of the machinery of industrialization should be combined with the natural sounds of the wild and humanity. The aim: to craft revolutionary recitals.
A century on from L’Arte dei Rumori‘s publication, the noise-sounds Russolo imagined — and the aesthetic techniques he envisioned — can be heard in many different musical genres. However, what stands out with many of today’s most adventurous musical explorers is that they’ve taken Russolo’s notion of noise-sound and used that to paint a far bleaker picture of the benefits of modernization than Russolo had conceived. Out on the fringes, apocalyptic visions abound, and one artist that has taken Russolo’s foresight and revealed the grim reality of modernity exceptionally well is Gog.
Gog is the experimental project of Arizona-based Michael Bjella. Since the early ’00s, Bjella has been crafting torrents of pitch-black, corrosive drone accompanied by ambient and consciousness-expanding dirges. Gog conjures the deep-set feeling of unease and nothingness that comes from staring into the void, but also, on occasion, brings starbursts of light and glimmers of hope. In doing so, Gog’s work exhibits elements of tension and release, fragility and strength, and pain and beauty, but more than anything else, Gog ponders the question of our (in)significance in a vast, cold, and uncaring universe.
Early works — such as 2005’s The Deepest Gates, 2007’s Norish Mills and 2007’s split with Apparitia, Fruition of the Occult — were filled with phantasmic drones, all loaded with hallucinogenic menace. However, while those releases possessed, they also exorcised, because Gog’s use of feedback, distortion, guitar, keys, percussion and effects is, at its heart, deeply engaging. You are drawn in to be shaken and shocked by sounds dynamic and destructive. But, as with all captivating dark ambient works, with the emotional battering comes the purge, and the cleansing.
Gog’s drones can be as bleak as your worst nightmares, but like the most disturbing of night-time terrors, they also unearth truths. They may not be truths you’d want to admit to in daylight, but Gog’s slow explorations tune into the nucleus of what it means to be human. The loneliness and anguish of living in an indifferent world are all there, but so too is beauty — or at least, the enchantments of melancholia.
That sense of beauty in anguish was brought to the fore on 2009’s Mist from the Random More, and then choked in black noise on 2010’s Heavy Fierce Brightness: Spells of the Sun. Both releases saw a significant rise in Gog’s visibility, and in part that was because the albums were released by Utech Records. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based label has a fascinating roster of experimental artists that Gog fitted in with flawlessly, and with the label’s history of imaginative and intriguing albums, the Utech stamp brings with it a strong sense of trustworthiness.
Of course, you don’t get an automatic pass by association with Utech. The fact that Mist from the Random More and Heavy Fierce Brightness: Spells of the Sun were both filled with mesmerizing compositions was the clincher. Mist from the Random More, with its 23-minute centerpiece track, “MFTRM”, dwelled in a hostile climate. However, it was lit with melodic sections, where pensive swells held the darkness at bay, before Gog stomped out of the light and headed into caverns. Gog’s use of minimalist glimmers of light overrun by maximum bursts of mangling noise brings with it a sense of transience. There may be beauty in the world, and moments of peace, but Gog recognizes their fleetingness. Dark ambient artists have always traversed that terrain, but Gog digs deeper into it than many, descending into sinister abyssal churns.
Abyssal is the perfect term to describe 2010’s Heavy Fierce Brightness: Spells of the Sun. While the light of the sun is there, the album’s three lengthy tracks draw the shadow over that illumination. On the 21-minute “Heavy Fierce Brightness”, ever encroaching and eerie sounds are drawn from the bowels of the earth, and as the atmosphere compresses, a maelstrom of black-hole noise hypnotizes. The album sees a shoegaze shine twisted into feedbacking doom, with negativity contorting into bursts of positivity, ’til it all comes crashing down in a murky storm, howling into the approaching void.
Exploring the void is something that fellow Arizonan dark ambient musician William Fowler Collins has done on sublime albums such as 2011’s The Resurrections Unseen and 2012’s Tenebroso, and in 2011 Gog and Fowler Collins collaborated on Malpais. With both artists drawing from desert environments, heatwave drones from the wastelands were shrouded in otherworldly mists, with the whirl of the tense build-up being all important. Increasingly higher tides of harshness and textural cascades transformed into mind-obliterating screeds of black fuzz on Malpais — all being sandblasted by currents of an approaching storm. Like Gog and Fowler Collins’ previous solo works, the album brought a sense of the inevitable acceptance of extinction with it, as creeping clouds of darkness covered the land.
Heading into darkness is a destination that Gog knows well, and on 2012’s In Our Architecture This Resounds that was reflected in four amorphous drones that delved into our relationship with the coldness and ambivalence of the universe. In Our Architecture This Resounds would work well for a brand new soundtrack of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, Stalker or Solaris, because there’s a bleak wonderment to the album — part scientific fact and part fiction. The eclipsing drones make you consider both the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of existence, and the familiar human elements of fear and awe accompanying such considerations can be found in the album’s piercing frequencies, jagged drones, and the flittering of minimalist starlight. It’s simultaneously dispiriting and reassuring, a counterpointing of tone that sits very much at the heart of Gog.
You may take away from Gog a sense of futility in the face of the vastness of the universe, but there’s also the sense that the here and now matters most. Death may well be the end, and the universe won’t notice when we pass on, but you could argue that Gog makes it clear that our insignificance is, well, significant.
In Gog’s works, our weaknesses as a species are considered in relation to how we interact and how we view the world in the brief flicker of existence we have on earth. As Gog’s compositions descend into tightening tunnels of noise, those explorations into the inscrutable arbitrariness of life also offer a sense of structure. Gog’s work might well be abstract, but it’s also reassuringly solid. It’s something to hold on to when the inevitable epiphany of your own insignificance arrives.
Like many other dark ambient artists, Gog awakens things buried inside, and there’s obviously catharsis found in immersing yourself in that strident noise. However, on a more terrestrial level, Gog’s work is political, too. The harsh noises Gog has employed can be looked on as harnessing the advantages of technology to question the supposed benefits of modernity.
Gog Family Picture
That’s certainly the case with Gog’s latest album, Ironworks. Originally issued as a vinyl release by Utech Records at the end of 2012, Ironworks is being reissued (and repackaged) on CD by label Season of Mist, and it is Bjella’s most personal and political musical statement so far. The album is also Gog’s most metal release too, with black metal’s tremolo hiss and plenty of other guitar-abuse indulged. However, as the title suggests the origin of the album’s metallic leanings isn’t musical at all.
Ironworks is born from the hammer and anvil, with Bjella recording the album in a century-old blacksmith shop, where members of his own family toiled. The aim is to evoke the sound of hard physical labor, offer commentary on “enslavement through capitalism”, and construct an album that is an “ode to the death of the American dream”. That shattering of the “work hard and you’ll be rewarded” ethic rings loud on Ironworks, with steel-clad compositions that’ll suit the ear of anyone who’s lost faith in capitalism — as long as they enjoy uncompromising cacophonies too. Ironworks is punishing and intense, filled with barrages of industrial percussion and excoriating feedback all drowned in a corrosive wash. It’s not easy listening by any means, but then, the death of a dream never should be.
“1870–1906” begins the album with a mix of raw black metal riffing shining through a dirty prism — light and dark refracting off sledgehammering percussion for an ear-splitting beginning. The politics of Ironworks are obvious in the title of next track, “Tasks Which Destroy Body and Soul”, and that’s well matched by the foundry clangs that smash into bleeding-raw riffing and graveled vocals — making for an evocative vision of physical and emotional collapse.
Ironworks is caustic, and the souring of a dream is there where gentle passages are smothered by unforgiving, acid-storm brutality on “A Promised Eternity Fulfilled with Cancer” and “God Says to Love You in Chains”. Of all Gog’s releases, Ironworks is by far the noisiest and bitterest. Where previous releases delved into the meditative darkness, Ironworks is a full-frontal assault, but there are still depths to explore here. The subtle texturing of “Into Her, She Carved the Word Empty” sees the track drill deep as piercing noise submerges and reemerges from washes of echo. “I Draw My Strength from You” is an emotionally bruising drone, with hammers striking metal, all wrapped in menacing static.
Ironworks has a clear of agenda however, like all of Gog’s previous releases, it has many veins. On one hand, it’s an imposing wall of blackened noise, with death rattles, foundry pandemonium, and devastating noise suiting the sound of ruined dreams and smashed will. On the other hand, it’s more than grinding noise exploring a broken world. It also comes with the same imposing hand-of-god missive of the Swans in full flight, the Herculean distortion of Sunn O))), the vengeful hiss of Sutekh Hexen, the catastrophic tone of Locrian, and the shell-shocked chaos of Einstürzende Neubauten.
If you enjoy any of those aforementioned bands, then it’s likely that the crushing communiqué of Ironworks will prove similarly attractive — doubly so if you’re looking for an album that’s also a scorching critique. Important points are made on Ironwork, all of them through the manipulation of sound. The Stygian shroud covering all brings visions of lives torn asunder, and in the passages of fracturing sound, a chasm opens wide, and it’s there that all our innumerable abortive dreams are glimpsed.
In that sense, Ironworks is an album that evokes the grief of lost hope, and there’s understandable anger in that; a ferocious raging against the lies we’re told (and sold) every day, with a brooding storm gathering over historical injustice, too. Gog pays tribute to loss, while honoring tenacity — and keep that in mind, because you’ll need resilience to make it through the deluge of noise and emotions here.
You’re not required to agree with the argument Bjella lays out on Ironworks, but it’s impossible to refute the strength or honesty of the message. The album is a powerful political statement. It examines the idea that we’re progressing as a species, and in doing so, it makes clear that the damage inflicted on those made victims of industrialization is written in pummeling and reverberating form. There’s a lesson to be learnt from Ironworks. It’s a lesson that harks back to a century ago, right back to Luigi Russolo’s L’Arte dei Rumori.
Ironworks is insurrectionary artistry, and it makes explicitly clear that the nosiest recitals are the most revolutionary.