Monday, 30 April 2012

The rise of the New Complicated

[review spiked from The Wire, written in September-October 2011]


Water Borders
Harbored Mantras

With a growing stable of intriguing artists, Tri-Angle is the 4AD of the 2010s, in the times when the latter publishes artists like Iron & Wine, St. Vincent or Beirut. For some reason, the 00s were marked by a shift from multidimensional projects like This Mortal Coil swiftly replaced by tedious, repetitive mutations of singer-songwriter. We have a problem with defining authenticity, which for many people must invariably mean a guy with a guitar singing wistfully covers of Sufjan Stevens in a pub basement. At the same time, anything too spooky, kitschy or ridiculous or just too ‘serious’ was a faux pas. But not all is lost. Suddenly artists are not ashamed of strangeness or mysticism even. Dark spaces of the internets, anonymity of modern music making bear a strange resemblance to the gothic spirit. Those connections are explored in depth by a doctoral thesis by Mark ”k-punk” Fisher, Flatline Conctructs. Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory Fiction, a 'Gothic Materialism' which has more in common with William S. Burroughs than Bram Stoker. Robin Carolan, the founder of Tri-Angle, consistently the spookiest of internet labels, who is not bothered by suspicion of kitsch - au contraire, pushing its esotericism to an extreme – at the same time is a fan of the lush sound of pop. What his artists, be it Balam Acab or How to Dress Well, have in common, is an interesting alternative to the default “poptimism” of chillwave, consistently penetrating grey areas.

The latest two: San Francisco Water Borders, a duo of producers Amitai Heller and Loric Sih, and Ayshay’s Fatima Al Qiadiri, Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised and now a New Yorker are very intriguing exercises in this new mysticism. They show us how we actually consume music: if we’re accepting the exotic, it is only in a certain highly conventionalized form of ‘folklore’. Their music can be qualified as an experiment in modern ‘world’ music, having nothing to do with any cliché of it you previously knew. Ayshay relies solely on various transformations of Al Qiadiri’s voice: her singing acapella reinterpretations of the traditional Islamic hymns, but the way you never thought of the Middle East music. Filtered to degrees of complete unrecognisability, stripped bare of any instruments, that would make it Qiadiri’s voice resemble an old man, a child and a young woman at the same time, layered together in one piercing drone, with a tribal beat in the background. Is it real religious devotion or pop travesty and does it matter? Sounding so intimate, we feel like we interrupted the artist in some private religious ritual.

In turn, the full length from Water Borders is a richly packed experiment at marrying the gothic and the exotic, engaging rich layers of Gamelan and African drums and industrial sensitivity. There’s something very post-punk about the way the seemingly incongruous styles are mixed here – the nearest memory is that of bands like This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Current 93 or even Dead Can Dance (sic!). It reminds us how industrial, dressed in radical politics, was actually another mutation of gothic – and on Harbored Matras romantic, gothic and exotic exist on equal rights. Industrial shared the gothic's obsession with technology, moral and civilizational decay, sexuality, exoticism, and above all, transgression. It is "religious" both in the sense of the old flirtation with occultism and with the transcendent, otherwordly, spiritual, celestial... According to Jon Savage, investigation of "cults, wars, psychological techniques of persuasion, unusual murders (especially by children and psychopaths), forensic pathology, venerology, concentration camp behavior, the history of uniforms and insignia" and Aleister Crowley's magick was present in Throbbing Gristle, but we can apply that to many others. Then it's passed onto Joy Division and PiL, whose marriage of cold and visceral influenced both popular goth post punk like Bauhaus and 4AD artists.

The reason This Mortal Coil records aged so well is in the end an effect of sheer prettiness – it’s beautifully recorded, romantic and dreamy material, a timeless Goth seduction soundtrack. In its beauty, its ritualistic, watered, dubbed out aquatic qualities, and its rich imagery, Harbored Mantras may have a similar future - I can easily imagine a contemporary Goth lightening candles and playing Water Borders as a seduction record. While the now rarely mentioned artist Muslimgauze was a music ethnographer whose findings were to serve the fight for Palestinian Autonomy, Ayshay and Water Borders are clearly pop. Their goal is making beautifully recorded music with a timeless sound.

UPDATE: a few months after I wrote this review, Simon Reynolds has published a post on "the new exquisite", which was a confirmation of my intuitions that the New Complicated (to this I'd also count Julia Holter or Cold Cave) is being born somewhere in the intersection of seemingly incongrous contemporary musics and esthetics.

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