Power electronics pioneer William Bennett continues his exploration of African and Haitian percussion as Cut Hands releases its third santeria and vaudou-themed album
If the name Cut Hands isn’t familiar to experimental, noise and electronic music fans, the work of its founder -- William Bennett -- surely is. His previous work with the project Whitehouse over the past three decades played a seminal role in defining, developing and pushing the boundaries of extreme electronic music. Bennett himself is credited with inventing the "power electronics" genre.
Bennett started his musical career as guitarist for the band Essential Logic, the post-punk outfit launched by former X-Ray Spex member Lora Logic. He then launched the short-lived noise project Come, which featured Daniel Miller, Peter McKay and J.G. Thirlwell among its contributors. In 1980 he formed Whitehouse, for which he has been the driving force and sole consistent member, although it's featured a range of live and studio contributors over the years, including Philip Best, Peter Sotos, John Murphy, Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound), Andrew McKenzie (Hafler Trio), and more. Steve Albini even produced several of the Whitehouse albums during the 1990s. The more than two dozen releases disseminated under the Whitehouse formation played a key role in the evolution of noise and power electronic music for almost three decades.
In 2008 Bennett ceased his work as Whitehouse and gradually shifted attention to his newer Cut Hands project. The group’s Facebook page cites the unusual combination of musical influences from which it draws: vaudou (voodoo), santería, vévé, Congo, Haiti, Ghana, Brazil, djembe, doundoun, trance, extralinguistic sequencing, Benin, el palo mayombe, black mamba. As the list suggests, Bennett’s interest with this project lies in exploring African and Haitian vaudou music. Festival of the Dead is the third Cut Hands album, and the previous two -- Afro Noise I and Black Mambo -- also explored a similar style.
Bennett’s work rarely disappoints, and this album is no exception. From the opening, aggressive power percussion of lead track The Claw, to the eerie grind of Parataxic Distortion, the sound is consistent without ever becoming boring or even -- for those sensitive to the nuances of rhythm and beat -- repetitive. Tracks like "Festival of the Dead" and "Vaudou Take Me High" have a ritualistic beat to them that resonates powerfully with the album’s theme. Others like "Inlightenment" are more experimental in nature.
While perfectly mesmerizing as background music, the album merits a close and active listen. There’s an immense creative potential in work of this nature. The powerful percussive beats are front and center but they merge beautifully with the lightly nuanced background electronics, forming a surprisingly sonorous soundscape that’s simultaneously calming, hypnotic and hyper-energetic. It’s the sort of work to which a listener can fully immerse themselves and trance out; or to which one could leap into frenzied, full-bodied dance.
For an album that maintains such fluid continuity, the tracks themselves bear a diversity of origins. "Belladonna Theme" was taken from a documentary film about “superstar porn actress Belladonna”. "I Know What I Must Do" was “originally composed for a traditional Greek music project”. Bennett describes the opening track -- "The Claw" -- as being based on “a powerful modern visualization spell”.
Bennett’s creative work has never been short of controversy. Whitehouse -- the name itself a derisory reference to British "morality" activist Mary Whitehouse -- was known for its often shocking use of graphic sexual and taboo political imagery and lyrics. While much of this was crafted in a satirical vein, not everyone got the message and it occasionally resulted in accusations of racism and fascism, which Bennett vehemently responded to in a personal statement on his website last year.
As Cut Hands, Bennett’s occasionally found himself in debates about colonialism and musical appropriation, particularly on the theme of white Europeans exploring "world music". In fact, African drumming is not something new for Bennett; he’s been researching and working with African percussive instruments for years. In a fascinating 2011 interview with Kiran Sande that was published in Factmag, Bennett criticized the very label "world music", suggesting there's a colonialist paternalism in the lumping of non-western music into a secondary genre label.“There’s music and there’s music. I would go as far as to suggest that by attempting to make something ‘ethical’, you end up making it unethical, or at the very worst it becomes condescending and patronising. There’s this inverted colonialism to all things. So I think it’s respectful, but I wouldn’t go any further than that.”
An interview earlier this year with Decibel magazine reveals the complexity of his interest and his approach in melding the unique forms of "vaudou" music with his own expansive musical style. “With an absence of voice and conventional musical instrumentation, it’s to polymeters and polyrhythms I turn to provide the overwhelming intellectual and physical stimulation I crave. Many of the voodoo polyrhythms are intensely complex and I wouldn’t know how to deconstruct them if I tried, or even wanted to, nor do I have the musical skill or background. Therefore, I merely take inspiration from the feeling and take it from there within my own musical domain of experience, which is complex in its own right.”
It’s not surprising that music which has consistently been ahead of the game in terms of style and genre should also court controversy. If Bennett’s various projects share anything it is a disdain for convention and a mocking derision for lip-service adherence to normative standards -- musical or otherwise. His ability to shock, to satirize, and to strain the conventions of style suggests that truly creative work demands to be treated on its own terms, and not interpreted through prevailing paradigms.
Bennett’s work has changed over the years, but what it retains is a relentlessly energetic creativity. Festival of the Dead exudes power and energy, and frames it in a ritualistic contour that ideally expresses the album’s theme. For those who enjoy percussive beats -- ritualistic, aggro, and experimental -- the album is a delight. For those open to trying something new, or sampling the work of this pioneering musician, it won’t disappoint either.