In 1999, Michael Gira, previously best known as the driving force and mouthpiece for art-noise-“rock” outfit Swans, found himself with the freedom to do, well, whatever he wanted, really. He had disbanded and effectively ended the band he had started over 15 years prior, and without the restraints that come with an expectation of provocation, he found himself putting his fingers into a variety of genres, even experimenting with other bands. He did folk-oriented work as a solo artist and leader of Angels of Light, he experimented with ambience and tape looping as the Body Haters (a.k.a. the Body Lovers), and he even started his own record label to release his new work alongside Swans’ back catalogue. It was a fruitful and prolific time for him, despite the destruction of his best-known band.
On top of everything, there were projects like this, ones where Gira got to work with other artists he respected on work he was interested in. To be sure, Offenbarung und Untergang is interesting. Offenbarung und Untergang began as a poem by Georg Trakl, translated as either “Revelation and Demise” or “Revelation and Apocalypse”, written the year of his death by a cocaine overdose. A little background on Trakl: he was a pharmacist for the Austrian army who was both unable to adjust to civilian life after the army and unable to cope with the worst parts of war when he returned. Poetry (along with, presumably, his own pharmaceuticals) was his outlet for the feelings of hopelessness and despair that would eventually overtake him at a mere 27 years old.
His poetry is plain-spoken and unrelentingly bleak, understandably so in hindsight. There is little hope to be found in his poetry, and at one point in Offenbarung und Untergang, a female voice exhorts his narrator to kill himself. That he would eventually follow such advice lends an air of the horrific to the work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly to those familiar with his work to this point, Gira is the perfect person to be narrating Trakl’s tales.
For their part, Étant Donnés put together a backdrop for Trakl’s work that is fittingly oppressive, a wall of noise that comes off as industrial in every sense of the word, factories and turbines and cold winter winds offering a clear picture of the setting for such tales. Mark Cunningham is on hand to offer additional noise from his trumpet, an instrument occasionally used for melodies, though not as much as wounded animal noises and cutting interjections; it is his trumpet, as juxtaposed with Étant Donnés’ white and grey noises, which gives the album a somewhat unique personality.
A standout among the six untitled tracks is the second, where Étant Donnés add a heavily reverberated pulse to their walls of sound, Cunningham plays a series of notes that could conceivably be identified as vaguely middle-Eastern in origin, and Gira begins the song actually singing, toying with the absolute depths of his bass range, coming off something like a detuned sitar. Trakl at this point is detailing his low-key depressing life (“I sat silent in a vacant tavern under smoke-black wooden beams, and feeling lonely over my wine.”), though at about the halfway point, the backdrop becomes insistently noisy while Gira begins to speak hurriedly and in a slightly panicked tone. It is at this point that Trakl is detailing his dreams (“One night in the forest I broke my black stallion’s neck when madness rose in his crimson eyes…My face died in a hell of stones.”), dreams that are epic and terrifying in scope. It is at this point in the piece that it becomes clear that there is no escape for Trakl, no path to happiness.
The rest of the album is quality, but it never gets more interesting than that second track. There is an ebb and flow to the volume of Étant Donnés’ backdrops, and their noise is well-constructed and purposeful. Gira mostly recites the rest of Trakl’s words, without offering too much more than a passive sort of dread — which, granted, works for the material.
What we are left with works on all fronts, though more so as a piece to study than one to enjoy. It’s hard to find an occasion that would lead to repeat listens here unless you are a devoted fan of the sort of ambient noise that Étant Donnés is so skilled in creating. That said, Gira is mostly excellent, and for the entirety of the second segment, utterly brilliant and hypnotizing. Cunningham’s trumpet is a constant means to keep the listener on edge, and Trakl’s text has enough possible meanings and layers beyond its utter hopelessness to keep it interesting and engrossing. While it’s impossible to imagine a huge audience for something like this, it’s the sort of treasure that those with interest in any of the artists involved will be happy to have another crack at owning. It is worth hearing, just make sure you know what you’re getting into.