Since Sebastian Gainsborough, aka Vessel, signed to Tri Angle Records, he has continued to push the brooding capabilities of electronic music. 2012’s Order of Noise deconstructed techno and house into disintegrating beats, laying atmospheric melancholy over skeletal drums. 2014’s Punish, Honey built seductively dark DIY cacophonies, submitting to and fusing ecstasy and despair—the closer “DPM” is an acronym for debilitating power music. The trajectory of these two sonic explorations seemed to lead toward an enthralling freefall into the perpetual depths of complete sound experimentation, intimating a move toward industrial noise or dark ambient.
However, while Gainsborough’s latest album Queen of Golden Dogs was composed during 18 months of solitude in rural Wales, the music does not depict lonely torpors or the sense of impending doom that struck his past albums. Rather, Gainsborough’s secluded stint directed his experimental tendencies to the unexpected world of chamber music. Also, inspired by a range of writers, the painter Remedios Varo, and the “violinist lover”, an unnamed contributor to the album, QoGD shifts from Gainsborough’s typically sepulchral, dreary beats to dense, romantic chamber compositions and emotionally skittering electronic movements.
QoGD opens with the prologue “Fantasma (For Jasmine)”. Unsettling chamber music begins as cellos liberally teeter from harmonious to dissonant, teasing the ominous tones of Gainsborough’s past. However, the deceptive cloak is quickly doffed with a scorching, percussive synth line. Soon joined by jumping slap basses, latex screeches, and unrelenting drum rolls, the opening cellos are long forgotten. While in the past, such a dissonant intro may have collapsed into a dilapidated doom drop, this time, the tension is hyperexcited, cathartically screaming distorted melodies until the very end.
“Argo (For Maggie)” continues the prologue’s elusive movements. Once again, orchestral strings begin the chamber introduction but quickly morph into sharp metallic swells and bit-crushed vocal glides. Moments before the shrilling piece overloads, a teeming drum circle of claps and collapses clank to commence a Baroque techno end, if you will. With irreverence for tradition, the shapeshifting progression surrenders to untamed impulses. As Gainsborough says, QoGD is “an exploration of living a life devoted to uncertainty, curiosity, and change”.
Moreover, Gainsborough composes a set of segues that moves from drum-heavy tracks to ambient and classical compositions. The Baroque interlude “Arcanum (For Christalla)” plucks a lone harpsichord until it suddenly oscillates into a clattering noise crescendo. “Sand Tar Man Star (For Auriellia)” features Olivia Chaney’s vocals over damning, reverb-laden clunks that almost resemble the DIY hammerings of Punish, Honey. “Torno-me eles e nau-eu (For Remedios)” also borrows Chaney’s voice to layer a sullen choir, leading to the album centerpiece.
“Paplu Love That Moves the Sun” is the only song that is not parenthetically dedicated to another, and the outlier is justifiably saved for Gainsborough himself. Above all, the centerpiece tests the boundaries of the almost overindulgent, over-saturated nature of QoGD. As Chaney’s vocals echo from the prior segue, a staccato synth enters with the most joyous melody of the album. Exacerbated by jubilant group claps and celebratory yelps, the sense of unfettered expression never relents. Seeking constant transformations, each transition shoots further into an otherworldly space, a place in which only QoGD occupies.
Gainsborough says about Queen of Golden Dogs, “I wanted to make this work to realize experiences that I thought I had already had. Quite quickly I realized that I was reaching too far, and because I wanted so much more, I had to give more.” Processing and searching for new expressions, oversaturated melodies, and unabated movements reach for new sonic reflections. While past projects painted bleak landscapes, the latest opus pours copious amounts of over-saturated colors to swatch luscious scenes. It has been four years since Gainsborough’s last release, and there was much to share.