John Bence
Photo: Amelia Gilmartin via Thrill Jockey

John Bence Turns to His ‘Archangels’ for Detoxification

John Bence’s Archangels has got to be one of the quietest new albums. He’s conjured a storm’s eye, making it a fascinating aesthetic contradiction.

John Bence
Thrill Jockey
24 February 2023

John Bence’s Archangels has got to be one of the quietest new albums on the market now. It’s not entirely peaceful through and through, though. After a short introductory track named “Psalm 34: 4” (“I sought the LORD and He answered me / And rescued me from all my fears”), Bence begins ticking through the names of different archangels track by track, starting with “Metatron, Archangel of Kether”. A one-note moan joins hands with a distorted hum, building to a climax with a scream followed by a thunderous marching snare. After that, the piano takes over, hammering out a pattern that is neither major nor minor but tense and unsettling. From there, Archangels repeatedly goes into sonic hiding, stringing the listener along as they wait for more disruptions like “Metatron, Archangel to Kether” to reoccur. You do finally experience something like it 45 seconds before the album concludes.

Bence’s albums Love and Archangels are musical responses to his treatment for alcoholism. Where Love is a collection of abstract piano pieces running the gamut of contemporary classical styles, Archangels is like a vapor; sometimes, it’s barely there. Instead of taking the lead, Bence’s piano sits in the background, helping to create dark textures with the chant vocalizations and so many miscellaneous whispery noises. If monks from a monastery were to indulge in a few lysergic experiences and add the most naked of instruments, Archangels might be the result.

If you read up on Bence’s background, none of this should be too surprising. He grew up in Bristol and attended the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, meaning that he was influenced by electronic and classical music in equal measure. He shows no philosophical or religious predilections, instead just taking in whatever fits his worldview and synthesizing them into the music. Bence began work on Archangels a good two years after he started his recovery, giving the music an extra spiritual weight that speaks volumes where the dynamics barely speak at all. Rather than seeing how much he can compose, Archangels finds Bence seeing how little he can get away with.

The results can be anything from soothing to distressing. The album’s middle stretch, from when Bence summons “Tzadkiel, Archangel of Chesed” on down to “Haniel, Archangel of Netzach”, is populated with the most minimal classical chamber music you could ask for. Archangel’s next-to-last track, “Sandalphon, Archangel of “Malkuth”, is the longest and makes the highest bid for an earworm. A group of male voices sings a repeating melody in three-quarter time in near-unison. The text is unknown to this writer, though it has to be a prayer since it dances in your head repeatedly as if trying to make something happen—the softly-distorted hum returns, accompanied by cavernous moaning and delicate auxiliary noises. “Anu/Enlil/Enki (The Way of Anu)” then proceeds to close out Archangels with a mixture of a slow, faded pulse, another “om” moment, and the beginnings of the agitating scuffling noises found in” Metatron, Archangel of Kether.”

The work of John Bence demands context here. Sure, it’s possible to let yourself drown in the music of Archangels, but doing so feels like an incomplete experience. Hopefully, none of his followers have to experience addiction to appreciate this work. Perhaps the worst they have to do is brush up on their archangel mythology. Either way, Bence has conjured a storm’s eye, making Archangels a fascinating aesthetic contradiction.