Daniel Higgs regularly appends A.I.U. into his name, standing for Arcus Incus Ululat, in case you were wondering. I can’t say I’m a Higgs follower or even much of a Gnostic re: his fiercely cultivated out-there image and famously wild beard, or even the addendum to his name, but the Baltimore-based artist and musician has been making music for twenty years. Most well-known as frontman of post-punk band Lungfish, Higgs has recorded under his own name as well as the moniker Cone of Light. Despite the fact that he’s undoubtedly accomplished at his chosen instruments, the artist’s material can sound, at times, little more than the improvisations of a hallucinating mind. Sometimes unraveling vision from hallucination is not so simple for the uninitiated.
Higgs’s Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot is the second in Thrill Jockey’s limited edition book-CD series, and it’s more of a challenge than Aki Tsuyuko’s childlike electronic compositions and oil painting pairing. Again, the packaging is exquisite, and justifies the purchase price on the collectible aspect alone. The book, a handsome blue hardcover, has the CD slipped into the front cover. You could easily flip over it if you didn’t know it was an essential part of the experience Higgs has created for us. As to precisely how the six instrumental compositions are meant to relate to the abstract artwork and acrostic poetry of the art book — let alone to their titles themselves — remains something of a mystery.
Well, let’s start with the title. The yggdrasil is a tree out of Norse mythology that supposedly connects all the worlds in the cosmos together. Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot may refer to a new (atomic) way of achieving cosmic connection (yggdrasil) through spirituality (tarot). Sounds ridiculous, right? But given Higgs’s self-stylings as a prophet of the spiritual realm, we shouldn’t judge on this basis alone. As an artistic statement, the book is no more comprehensible. Facing a series of abstract plates that seem full of unrevealed symbol (geometric shapes, womb-like curves), acrostic poems are printed ranging from clever (“Belief Is Blasphemy Lovingly Encoded” for BIBLE) to the oddly beautiful (BELOVED becomes “Beyond Existing Language Our Verses Encircle Deities”).
The album of accompanying music is dense, incompressible atmosphere. The six tracks range in timbre from feedback-laden loops of sound to Eastern-style slow evolutions of banjo or jew’s harp. Expansive and unhurried — “Cocoon on the Cross” and “Hems and Seams” clock in at near the ten minute mark — these tracks build off layered drones to create complex but perplexing meditations. At their best, as on “Coccoon on the Cross”, the result comes close to a hypnotic trance, but the more squally moments of pure noise are harder to parse.
Whether you dismiss Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot — the music, the art, and the poetry — or embrace it as a possibly meaningful, artistically valid statement will be dependent on your tolerance for a) drone-based atmospheric instrumentals; b) acrostics; and c) spirituality in general. I won’t weigh in, particularly, one way or the other, except to point out that when holding this valuable book, it does feel like a work of some value.