Black to Comm - Seven Horses for Seven Kings

A Closer Listen

How do you go about capturing regression in an avant-garde form? Experimental approaches will always undermine any traditional references, and even at their most dystopian they will always capture an abrasiveness that is fundamentally new. Seven Horses for Seven Kings grows out of an apocalyptic horizon in which the past no longer haunts the present, and is actively manifesting its contempt through the embodiment of what Black to Comm has called “our new aristocracy”. This regression spreads its roots into the sleep of reason, its “Asphodel Mansions” of penetrating brass drones flowering into a landscape neither dead nor living, an entire planet condemned to the purgatory of five degrees. It deceivingly turns the old into the new, and thus utilizes all the resources of the vanguard to subversively announce its presence: the kings constitute themselves as pure image, their hollowness a signal that marks them to be the most modern of us all.

Thus, the detail-rich drones of the artist’s past works, those experimental seeds of a somber contemplation, become here integrated into more conventional structures, weaponized in the service of disruption for its own sake, like the punch of percussions in “A Miracle No-Mother Child at your Breast” deriving into a slow mass of noise and feedback. It seems to lead somewhere, but by the end it becomes clear that those grand visions left an earth completely scorched behind, trampled by the horses of all those kings whose smiles contain a million spectacles. Peppered with mythological and religious allusions, the album’s folk-tale title images grind that sense of turning back and seeing nothing but destruction. “Lethe” means oblivion in Greek, but it was also the river in Hades that caused the loss of memory in any and all who drank from its waters; the track that bears its name flows with a cut-up cadence that often produces a short pause, as if the record had skipped, soft enough to allow continuity, hard enough to disturb listening. We are not destined to repeat the past out of forgetfulness – we are bound instead, like that uncomfortable silence surrounded by a collage of drones, to forget the present, our thinking chained by repetition of a kind that is not exact, but noisy. The kings, after all, are new.

At its most extreme, Seven Horses for Seven Kings evokes the most pummeling of industrial music, as in “If Not, Not”, a relentless, train-engine barrage of pulses that crash upon a chaotic mélange of dissonant angelic voices, the unstoppable march of progress fueled by an indescribable terror. “Rameses II”, who was called Ozymandias by the Greeks, the source of the famous Shelley poem of the same name, plods with a broken rhythm and furnace blast-fanfare, groaning with vast drones until everything dies out, an entire lifetime of war and death elevated in the greatest of imperial monuments. The track that follows it, “Angel Investor”, sees infinite potential in the warm shadow of the landscape of rubble that was, in the end, Ozymandias’ true monument: another king comes in the wake of war, and with his spectacle-smile promises the prosperity of new markets in the making.

The album ends with the image of another folktale, “The Courtesan Jigokudayū Sees Herself as a Skeleton in the Mirror of Hell”. After her noble parents are slain, the young woman known as Otoboshi is sold to a brothel and trained to become an upper-class courtesan. With her life in shambles, she decides to name herself Jingoku (“hell”) in order to mock all the misfortunes that surely were a karmic legacy of her past lives. With a kimono covered in images of skeletons, fire, and hellish landscapes, she is a contrast to all the other courtesans who adopted tenderness in both their names and clothing. Wise and poetic, she meets a Zen monk that, through verse and theatrical acts, teaches her a very simple lesson about being hell: “when are we not in a dream? When are we not skeletons? We are all just skeletons wrapped with flesh patterned male and female.” When she thinks of becoming a nun, the monk advises against it, telling her that it is much better to remain a courtesan; matter, not ideas, beats at the heart of the truth about everyday life, the truth that in the mirror of hell all our differences are cast aside. The music is sweet and contemplative, a return to form, a moving drone that draws a sad and pretty soundscape that washes away the stridence of the Seven Horses. It is also the longest track in the entire album, a slow-burning hope that is tested once and again, a hope that does not deal in triumphalisms (leave that to the kings) but low-key drones and, ultimately, silence. The skeleton in the mirror is a reminder of the present, a refusal of the kings’ return, if only because it reveals that not only do the new aristocrats see patterned flesh in that reflection, they are also terrified to accept that what lies beneath shares the fate of all. (David Murrieta Flores)

Mon Jan 28 01:01:09 CET 2019

The Quietus

A few months ago, I was at a music festival with the founders of this website. As we sat resting late in the evening, I brought up a set I enjoyed. The reply: "I used to quite like them, but now it's just gothic sound design." That stuck with me, like a ringing in the ears. The term "sound design" metamorphosed, however gradually, into something of a red flag, especially when used as a record's primary descriptor. As in: "It's a masterpiece of sound design." God forbid you call something a "sound design record". That's basically pejorative - shorthand for staid, vaguely goth atmospherics utterly devoid of dynamism. Accidental ambient music. And so, the pre-release chatter surrounding sound artist Marc Richter's latest LP as Black To Comm, Seven Horses For Seven Kings, while all positive, raised some flags. Maybe not red, but amber. Anyway, I approached the album with caution, but it turns out my knee-jerk scepticism was entirely unwarranted. Seven Horses For Seven Kings is a bracing, deeply unsettling listen, incapable of devolving into aural wallpaper.

The record is also frequently terrifying, building and releasing tension in the same way a well put together horror narrative might - something that scores of LPs have attempted in recent years, but few successfully pull off. And like all the best horror stories, Richter's work possesses a dark sense of humour. It bubbles up from time to time, relieving tension, allowing the listener to breathe, to recalibrate, before disembodied voices or piercing tones or fleshy burbles ratchet up the tension once again. In fact, the album's first moments are sublimely silly. Opener 'Asphodel Mansions' kicks off with a rotten fanfare, brass suggestive of an absurd, foolish king lording over a wretched, worthless kingdom. That is, until the horns mingle with chanting (or what's meant to sound like it), and the tone of the album shifts entirely. Is what we're hearing now wind or screeching animals? Shrieking people? The brass returns, but now it feels foreboding, accompanied by the stench of an animal breathing in your ears.

It's all very intense. But is it entertaining? I'd say it is, very much so, but it all depends on how you like to be entertained. Of course, people have been freaking themselves out with sound effects and sound design since at least the 1920s. First with radio plays, then by the 50s, with narrative recordings pressed to vinyl, which were popular through at least the 70s. It's possible that Disneyland Records released the first side of scary sound effects tracks divorced from voiceover in 1964 with Chilling, Thrilling Sounds Of The Haunted House. Side A featured typical stories accompanied by sound effects, but side B was entirely "instrumental", and honestly, it holds up. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop got in on the act in 1977, when they released their fairly nightmarish Sound Effects No. 13 - Death & Horror. Which is all to say that Black To Comm exists, however tangentially, within a long tradition of horrifying recordings purpose-built for the construction of narrative, whether tacked on in production or crafted in the mind of the listener. It's here that Richter reveals a great generosity of spirit, providing cues through titles like 'A Miracle No-Mother Child At Your Breast' or 'The Courtesan Jigokudayū Sees Herself As A Skeleton In The Mirror of Hell', which give the listener a sense of scene, putting the music into something that almost resembles context.

I use the word "music" very purposefully when referencing Black To Comm, because the undeniable musicality of the tracks Richter makes is the key distinction between his work and the records referenced above. These pieces aren't just beautifully mixed assemblages of sound or noise, but carefully measured and thrilling compositions that build and climax in ways that any fan of post-rock or electronic music will immediately connect with. It's another way Richter's generosity shines through. This record may be uncompromising, at times purposefully alienating, but it's also wildly listenable thanks to points of ingress - like the incredible percussion of 'Fly On You' or the heartbreaking ambience of 'Angel Investor' - scattered throughout its thirteen tracks that are as welcoming as the more extreme moments are repulsive. It's an impressive balancing act evident of an artist in complete command of his medium. So, when I say that Seven Horses For Seven Kings is a masterpiece of sound design, that's no backhanded compliment. This album is the sort of sound design record that more sound artists should aspire to make.

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Mon Feb 25 13:57:31 CET 2019