Twin titans of the underground come together to craft essentially what you'd expect a collaboration of this nature to sound like, for better or worse.
With the release of Soused, erstwhile pop singer Scott Walker continues on more or less unabated in the same basic template within which he has worked over the course of his trilogy of experimental albums that began with 1995’s Tilt and culminated in 2012 with the release of the highly regarded Bish Bosch. He continues to barrel ever onward on the same bizarro trajectory begun following his unlikely comeback after a long silence that saw much of his back catalog, both solo and as a member of the Walker Brothers, fall out of print, only to later be heralded by the cognoscenti. Now, Walker has enlisted doom lords Sunn O))) (Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson) as his backing band, jettisoning the group of avant garde simpatico mentalists who aided in his previous three ventures into the unknown.
While ostensibly billed as a collaborative album, it is clearly Walker’s show and Sunn O))) seem to respect this, providing minimalist, droning backing that, while never truly serving Walker’s operatic theatrics, functions as an appropriate underpinning for his abstract, abstruse reference heavy lyrics. Essentially, Soused functions as an exercise in hero worship in that Sunn O))), more than capable of creating a glorious racket themselves, rarely come to the fore, instead leaving Walker alone on his empty stage, warbling on doing his sad-clown shtick as the spotlight follows his deliberate movements, regardless of whether or not he is singing.
As with previous efforts, this functions more as an exercise in Walker’s abstract, impressionistic lyrics, albeit less aggressively obtuse and scatological as those on Bish Bosch (nothing as amusing as “if shit were music you would be a brass band”; no chorus of flatulence). Instead, Soused feels more like a tossed off, afternoon affair in which Walker penned a handful of abstract couplets and set them to pre-existing drone tracks. While the two groups never truly seem to gel or play off of one another, Sunn O))) make a valiant effort to try their best to properly underscore what Walker has brought to the table. Whether or not it is truly effective is another matter entirely. In fact, it’s almost as though Walker couldn’t possibly care less as to who was backing him so long as his pompous, oftentimes ridiculous vocals are front and center.
On “Herod 2014”, with its feedback-drenched guitar drones and squealing reeds, Sunn O))) provides a suitably weird backdrop for Walker’s fever dream nightmare lyrics, once again delivered in a thoroughly over-the-top, borderline camp manner. At times the pairing sounds more like the two decided to come together but refused any sort of stylistic melding, instead favoring their respective sounds far more than any blend that might have occurred and thus, in the process, simply spliced the two together to create a jarring, nightmarish version of an off-off-Broadway production.
Given the epic length of each of the five tracks here, Soused is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with short attention spans. There is an air of musical theatre about the whole of the album that becomes a bit unsettling as one pictures Walker center stage, a single spotlight tracing his minimalist movements amidst a stark, colorless backdrop while the pit orchestra rages and seethes somewhere just out of sight. It is certainly one of the more unsettling listening experiences one is likely to have this year and those expecting something great and terrible (in the best possible way) from this unlikely pairing will not be disappointed.
But whether or not you buy into what they’re pedaling based on its artistic merit or the cultural cache of the players involved is another matter entirely. While each has certainly cemented their respective places in the contemporary underground, what they’ve put forth together does not see either transcending or escalating anything they’ve done previously. Instead it simply plays as more of the same, continuing a musical through line for both that does not find either deviating all that much from the well-worn path they’ve each established for themselves over the last decade or so.
More than anything, Walker’s often somewhat absurd vocal delivery stands in sharp contrast to the nightmarish soundscapes crafted by Sunn O))). Sounding as though he’s reciting his own (intentionally?) bad poetry as part of a one-man show for which he let his doom-obsessed nephews craft the score, Walker perfectly embodies the stereotypical overly-serious “artiste” attempting to present his deepest emotions by layering them in absurdist couplets, melismatic vocals, and general thematic ridiculousness.
Middle track “Bull” finally feels as though it begins to fulfill the promise initially afforded by this collaboration. That is until Walker begins a near spoken-word recitation of abstract poetry that, again, descends into absurdity thanks to his by this point well established, overly theatrical delivery. Fortunately, Sunn O))) here create a compelling sonic backdrop that threatens at times to swallow Walker’s vocals in their squally miasma, simmering with a slow burn that cultivates a very specific level of unease that perfectly underscores Walker’s over-the-top lyrics and vocals. One can imagine Walker deftly turning the page of his libretto as the droning feedback roils on in the background, chin held high with an air of actorly self-confidence; smug superiority and high art. Here his vocal presence is quietly forgotten, cast aside in favor of a slow-burning drone that takes over the remainder of the track, playing very much to Sunn O)))’s strength and trademark style, leaving the listener with the melancholic reminder that it has been nearly five years since the last Sunn O))) album proper.
The dry, reverb-less vocal presence on “Fetish” casts Walker as being alone again on the aforementioned stage, surrounded by slow-simmering chaos, elements of free jazz creeping into the minimalist noise and skittering percussion. Nearly three minutes in, the first guitar line remotely resembling a riff enters briefly before dissolving into a sea of shakers and the continued, distant mournful trumpet. All of this soon gives way to a glorious cacophony, ebbing and flowing, pushing and pulling, giving and taking. As elsewhere, Walker’s vocal delivery borders on the absurd, warbling away in an over-serious baritone with a somewhat stilted vibrato that toes the line of parody. But this is the voice for which he has become known and the approach for which he is most celebrated, rightly or wrongly. Regardless of how you feel about Walker, you must given him credit for delivering such lines as “acne on a leper” with complete and total sincerity in his voice.
Essentially it’s all absurdist fun that, over the course of five epic tracks, begins to wear on the listener as Soused’s oppressive nature refuses to afford any respite from its monotonous onslaught; vocals remain largely in the same basic range and the slow rumble underscoring each track focuses more on creating a mood than a memorable musical moment. Where Bish Bosch’s longest tracks functioned in an almost suite-like capacity affording musical variation, Soused is all length and no variation. One would need to be an ardent fan of either artist to fully embrace this particular release, however these same listeners (this reviewer included) will no doubt find much to enjoy here periodically and ultimately commend the collaboration. There’s simply not enough sonic variation going on here to make Soused nearly as compelling as its respective creators’ past efforts.