Wrekmeister Harmonies - Night of Your Ascension

Pitchfork 78

We don't always recognize it, but the ability to hold back until precisely the right moment is crucial to the act of making even the most concise or chaotic forms of music. As listeners, we both expect music to adhere to familiar formulae while also teasing our ears with traces of the unexpected. And, as with foreplay, certain artists are just more skilled at extending climaxes into exquisite torture.

On Night of Your Ascension, it takes a full 15 minutes of guest vocalist Marissa Nadler's chanting within a funereal 16th-century/Renaissance-styled organ/string/choral arrangement before elephantine guitar chords and drums come crashing through the mist. Even if you listened to this album without any context, you would get a sense that it was building up to something. And if you're aware of the backstory or personnel going into it, you'll no doubt wonder when the metallic element is going to rear its head. Either way, Ascension tests your patience in the best possible sense.

Like Wrekmeister Harmonies' two previous albums, Night of Your Ascension consists of madrigal/sacred choral music, experimental ambient music, and doom. This time around (thanks to help from arrangers Eric Chaleff, Cooper Crain, and Sanford Parker), J.R. Robinson takes a developmental leap forward in all three arenas, but it isn't until the beginning motif of the second track "Run Priest Run" where all these disparate elements actually blend together, in a passage that lasts in excess of 8 minutes and could easily have appeared on Hundred Waters' last album. Before being gradually overtaken by electric guitars à la the title track, "Run Priest Run" initially fulfills the potential that Wrekmeister Harmonies show on paper as a 30-plus member ensemble drawing on musicians from metal, rock, and new music circles.

Alongside Nadler, harpist Mary Lattimore, electro-acoustic sound artist-composer Olivia Block, and Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten, the album features members of the Body, Cave, Indian, Bloodiest, Anatomy of Habit, Come, Twilight, and Mind Over Mirrors. Robinson leans heavily on these musicians to flesh out his compositions and give Ascension its shape and character. For the title track, Robinson nods to 16-century Neopolitan composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, whose experimental approach to madrigals pre-dated widespread use by a good 300 years.

Gesualdo is also infamous for murdering his wife and her lover. Robinson bases the first half of the title track on Gesualdo's techniques which, incidentally, influenced Igor Stravinsky and inspired author Aldous Huxley to describe Gesualdo's work as "a kind of musical no-man's land." The juxtaposition between the tune's classical and doom modes is clearly meant to invoke a sense of the friction between Gesualdo's towering creative presence and the internal torment that drove him to commit murder. Likewise, for "Run Priest Run" Robinson looked to the case of Boston Catholic priest Father John Geoghan, who was accused of sexually abusing over 130 boys, convicted, and murdered in prison in 2003 while serving a life sentence.

Once aware of these narrative backdrops, the atmosphere on Night of Your Ascension (and in particular the black metal-styled vocal screeching on "Run Priest Run") becomes charged with a dread that elevates this music above the ho-hum gestural negativity of other doom outfits who sound like they're reaching for something to frown over. Robinson draws from real-life tragedy and sexual pathology and does his earnest best to honor the nuances of each case. At the same time, this album's obvious equation of heaviness to violence and psychological despair comes off as heavy-handed.

Nevertheless, Night of Your Ascension faces rote themes like killing, death, and despair from a fresh perspective that aspires to be illuminating. It's also, strangely enough, an album listeners can use to make new friends. Given the way Robinson disposed of musical boundaries to put this music together, it spurs the audience to do the same practically by default. If you're into experimental rock or metal, Night of Your Ascension naturally incites curiosity about madrigals and Renaissance composition. The same applies in reverse. If your tastes fall in any of those areas, you can use this album as a bridge to another world by walking up to someone across the aisle and asking "Have you heard this? What's your take?" It's bound to be a lengthy, engaging conversation, not unlike the album itself.

Fri May 27 00:00:00 GMT 2016

Tiny Mix Tapes 60

Wrekmeister Harmonies
Night of Your Ascension

[Thrill Jockey; 2015]


Four centuries separate the murder of John Geoghan and the murder of Maria d’Avalos and Fabrizio Carafa. Geoghan, a former Catholic priest, was murdered in 2003. At the time, he was in prison in rural central Massachusetts, where he had been sent for molesting 130 boys over the span of 40 years. In August of that year, a fellow inmate named Joseph Druce cornered Geoghan in an empty cell and jammed the door shut, then tied Geoghan’s hands behind his back with a shirt, choked him with a shoe, and jumped on his ribcage until his chest collapsed before officers managed to burst in the door and pry him off. Druce was serving a life sentence for torturing and killing a gay bus driver. Geoghan’s murder fueled more public discussion about the church scandal, but perhaps its more lasting impact is a surveillance video of his murder, posted on YouTube five years later. It shows 10 police officers struggling to open the door of the cell while Druce kills Geoghan inside; it continues as they drag Druce out of the cell. The video is still online, and it’s been viewed 230,000 times.

Four-hundred and thirteen years earlier, on the night of October 16, 1590, Donna Maria d’Avalos and Fabrizio Carafa were in bed together in a palazzo in Naples, when Don Carlo Gesualdo and three men burst in the door. Gesualdo and the men tore the lovers from their sheets, then shot and stabbed them several times, also cutting Maria’s throat. Gesualdo fled to his castle nearby, but he was safe regardless, since d’Avalos was his wife and killing her for adultery was within his rights. The story would have faded into history except that Gesualdo was also one of the most confounding and visionary composers of his era, combining an off-kilter sense of harmony with a zealous sense of self-expression, both of which were groundbreaking in retrospect. The confessional anguish and lyrical violence of his madrigals, composed for five voices, amplified the myth of his bloodlust.

To admirers like Igor Stravinsky and Peter Warlock, Gesualdo was a heraldic composer with a strange biography. But Neapolitans have an even deeper obsession with Gesualdo’s legacy. When Werner Herzog on his own Gesualdo quest visited the composer’s castle in the Avellino countryside, he found a shattered old manse haunted by the locals — a bag piper, for instance, who came to wander the halls and ward off evil spirits, and an opera singer from the local asylum who thought she was Maria d’Avalos and sang through the halls. They regarded Gesualdo somewhere between a folk hero deserving veneration and a ghost requiring tribute.

On Night of Your Ascension, Wrekmeister Harmonies — a confederation of mostly Chicago-based musicians led by J.R. Robinson — plays host to Geoghan and Gesualdo. Robinson has said he intends the album to confront the theme that links the two stories: the strange fascination generated by the lurid details of their crimes. The album consists of two tracks: the 32-minute “Night of Your Ascension,” a protean composition about Gesualdo that includes an adaptation of one of his madrigals, “Ahi, Dispietata e Cruda”; and “Run Priest Run,” a dirge about Geoghan. Together, the pieces are, according to Robinson, meant to serve as “commentary on our own fascination with bloodlust and our seemingly insatiable appetite for lurid depictions of depravity.” Each aims to put the listener in the room during the murders and to make sense of why the murders fascinate us so much.

“Night of Your Ascension” begins with an organ drone and the voice of Marissa Nadler, singing layered harmonies that flow in a breathing pattern, pulsing inhalations and exhalations. Nadler’s voice feels disembodied, a kind of host uttering mournful warnings. It’s a telling way for Robinson to set the tone of the piece, a human voice, disconnected from feeling, ruthless in its approach. The piece moves on through mournful strings, oscillating synthesizers, and a black metal drone of guitar and drums; though each movement is distinct, it’s captivating to hear Robinson connect them. Some of the quieter moments are breathtaking, particularly a cello piece that melts into a choral arrangement, presumably of “Ahi, Dispietata,” that crests with a kind of shriveled, sickening crescendo. The final half of the track — 16 minutes — is consumed with bludgeoning away the swirling dread of the opening, though there is a curious warmth to the droning guitar and bass, like the flowing of blood.

“Run Priest Run” is half the length and more straightforward in its approach — an empty cell evoked by drones and metallic plinks, soon occupied by a lumbering processional and the screams of Chip King (of Portland avant-metal band The Body), an orchestrated maelstrom of violence that, like “Night of Your Ascension,” is effective in conjuring a chill chiefly because of the deadness of its gaze. Also like “Ascension,” it finds its strength in the quieter moments, where a kind of observed anxiety reigns in the coldness of the tiles and the bareness of the walls; the doom sections throw these moments in relief but don’t quite match their subtlety. Robinson’s main accomplishment is threading the piece with an overall feeling of passive observation — the engulfing moral absence in the prison cell or the blind rage of “Ascension’s” brutal finale. Perhaps he means to say that our fascination with the violent stories of Gesualdo and Geoghan incapacitates our ability to judge empathetically, to be more than spectators, to consider the souls of those we watch.

But our fascination with these particular murders — expressed in the YouTube surveillance videos and the folk stories left in their wake — reflects something more complex and even darker. As we watch corrections officers drag Druce from Geoghan’s cell, don’t we consider the blood on his hands, the slump of his body? Doesn’t the bagpiper’s obsession with Gesualdo’s castle — his need to clear it of bad spirits — say something about the very personal nature of our voyeurism and the fluid set of needs it satisfies? The high points on Ascension are the more nuanced ones, the moments that accommodate a range of feelings and reactions to a shocking act of violence. As the pieces are tamped down into pounding guitar, bass, and drums, they become something more like a soundtrack and ironically seem to do the very thing Robinson worries about: putting us inside the rooms where the murders occurred, only so we can watch with mouths agape.

01. Night of Your Ascension
02. Run Priest Run

Links: Wrekmeister Harmonies - Thrill Jockey

Fri May 27 00:00:00 GMT 2016

The Quietus 0

Near the beginning of Gesualdo: Death For Five Voices, a 1995 television documentary by Werner Herzog about the late-Renaissance prince and composer Carlo Gesualdo, the camera follows a southern Italian local as he traipses through the remains of Gesualdo's castle in the province of Campania while playing a tune on the bagpipes. Herzog's crew asks the man what he's up to. "I come here once a week to play music into these holes and cracks," he says, gesturing to the peeling and crumbling surfaces of the building. "Because there's an evil spirit haunting this place, and I have to keep him from escaping." It's Gesualdo's spirit, of course, which looms large in rural Campania, transfixing and possessing the locals several centuries after his death. But why? More so than his music - ignored in its time but revered later on for its formal innovations - it's Gesualdo's story, namely the brutal murder of his wife and her lover, that captures the attention of present-day people throughout Italy and beyond.

Though clearly interested in Gesualdo's macabre narrative, Herzog also makes great effort to highlight the erstwhile prince's prowess as a composer. Gesualdo's music suggests his fragile psyche, Herzog notes: unsettling, expressionistic, and rhythmically-diverse. Likewise culling inspiration from both Gesualdo's thirst for blood and forward-thinking music, Night Of Your Ascension, the fourth album by Chicago collective Wrekmeister Harmonies, bases its monumental title track on one of Gesualdo's madrigals. Peppered with overlapping moments of angelic beauty and bone-shaking doom, the piece updates the late composer's fragile, liminal compositions with an appropriately heavy, electric palette. In other words, where that Italian man used music to "keep [Gesualdo's spirit] from escaping," on Night Of Your Ascension Wrekmeister Harmonies play to set the bastard free.

That said, Night Of Your Ascension begins with roughly fifteen minutes of flowing, sedated cycles of sound—alternatingly calming and unnerving—constructed under bandleader J.R. Robinson's supervision by Marissa Nadler, whose floating voice repeats the foreboding 'You would never say goodbye'; Cooper Crain (Bitchin Bajas) and Jaime Fennelly (Mind Over Mirrors), whose synthesised arpeggios lend the composition a particularly unsettling undulation; and a cast of thirty other musicians representing various stylistic disciplines. In the intro, Robinson & Co. offer something appropriately suited for a church that, like much Renaissance music, is relatively easy listening but, due to cryptic lyrics and subtle-but-constant textural changes, refuses easy classification.

But after its halfway point Night Of Your Ascension shifts creepily from post-madrigal avant-garde music to the thunderous doom metal that Wrekmeister Harmonies approaches so well. Building carefully on the back of the Bonham-on-codeine beat, the piece elevates first into a thick fog of stoner doom and then into a hell-raising shriek-fest that continues for several minutes. Each stage of the composition, like each voice in Gesualdo's interweaving madrigals, flows seamlessly from its predecessor, such that the transition from the Nadler-led ambience of the beginning to the abrasive apex feels natural, like the rush of blood through - and perhaps out of - the body. Until it cuts off, that is, as if someone abruptly locked Gesualdo's spirit back in the walls of his crumbling castle.

Next comes the seventeen-minute 'Run Priest Run,' inspired by John Geoghan, a priest convicted for pedophilia and subsequently murdered in prison. (Like Gesualdo, Geoghan is a gruesome and despicable figure whose fate complicates his legacy.) Robinson opens up the mix, beginning with a long, spacious introduction full of industrial clunks and scrapes, fabricating the decidedly corporeal sonic landscape through which the titular demonised priest might 'run.' Like 'Night of Your Ascension,' 'Run Priest Run' uses its long running time to ebb and flow, and to reach a screaming peak - led by The Body's Chip King - in its second half. Unlike the first track, however, 'Run Priest Run' settles down in its final moments, cycling the listener back to where the album began: a calm, pseudo-religious atmosphere, detached, celestial. It makes the album work as a forty-nine-minute unit - one that explores, through a cascading matrix of sounds and musical forms, the nuances of the demons that course side-by-side through history, religion, and music.

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Fri May 27 00:00:00 GMT 2016