RMEDL / K11 – Chthonian Music CD Cold Spring Records 2012
To provide an overview of the conceptual focus of this album, the promo blurb provides some succinct and useful insights: “This multi-dimensional collaborative opera (audio installation and concept album) is a bridge between the conception of sound within the contemporary art scene, post-industrial culture and the avant-garde black metal musical scene. It focuses on creating a dialogic development between radical forms of concrete music, unorthodox sounds, conceptual arts and experimental recording practices of acoustic phenomena”. To counterbalance this ‘academic’ explanation, ‘Chthonian Music’ is the result of a site specific sound installation project which was prepared and presented in an archaic underground vault (or according to the liner notes: “ancient etrusian hypogeum sited in Cecina, Italy”). If this later description is a tad confusing, a series of photos presented on the cover illustrates the archaeological space to be a series of long narrow tunnels connecting with a larger high ceiling vault.
With regard to the sound aspects of ‘Chthonian Music’ the album has been created via the collaboration of an expansive list of contributors, including: Francisco Lopez, Christina Kubisch, Massimo Bartolini, Seth Cluett, Y.E.R.M.O., Seven Guitars, Luciano Maggiore, Gianluca Becuzzi, Andrea Marutti, Philippe Petit, Deadwood, Utarm, Burial Hex, Aderlating, Nordvargr and L’Acephale. However when considering the sheer number of contributing artists in context of the confined installation space, it is not clear from the liner notes whether contributing artists played live during the original performance, or whether source sound material was remotely submitted, which was in turn manipulated in real time during the installation by the project coordinators (Sandra Gronshi and Pietro Riparbelli). Despite such questions, where this album ultimately succeeds is that it transcends being merely an interesting idea and manages to connect the dots between multiple genres and emphasise their sonic overlap. It is also of interest to note that the album spans both ‘low’ (underground) and ‘high’ (academic experimental) art. As such ‘Chthonian Music’ embodies musique concrete, experimental sounds, sweeping drones (abstract, harmonic and disharmonic), and the sonic dissonance of underground black metal (evoked through angular riffing and flailing drums). Such sounds also intertwine with other genres including segments of contemporary classical composition and ritual ambient soundscapes, which provides a diversity of sonic terrain yet still maintaining a coherent feel.
On the opening track ‘Mundvs’, natural woodland field recordings (insects, rain and distant thunder) mix with deep and rumbling bass drones before abstract distorted organ harmonics fleshes out the sound, resulting in a relatively gentle album introduction. Although the album consists of 3 tracks, the second composition ‘Katabasis’ is split into 5 separate parts which play out as very much as individual tracks (rather than combining into a singular monster 55 minute composition). To provide a quick rundown of each segment:
- Part 1: ritual gongs/ chimes sit in the foreground, as experimental tones and layered ominous drones gradually build to moments of shrill intensity.
- Part 2: sub-bass drones mix with doomy acoustic guitars and croaked vocals, where the piece gradually elevates itself to ecstatic heights with its mechanised grinding loops, chanted vocals, dissonant black metal riffing and hammering metal kit drumming. This is black metal channelled in a very avant-garde manner and this is how I imagine current era SWANS would sound like if they ever tried their hand at black metal.
- Part 3: after the onslaught of the prior track, the next segment presents a melancholically beautiful piano piece, where the composition is loose, free flowing and heavily reverb treated, which is in turn underscored with a variety of other drone based elements. Mid track an organ takes over as the leading instrument to draw the track towards its conclusion.
- Part 4: is more tonally abstract, being constructed with field records/ musique concrete sounds and tense harmonic droning elements, before descending into a maelstrom of random metallic clatter, guitar reverb/ feedback and chaotic freeform kit drumming.
- Part 5: merges abstract musique concrete and ritual ambient elements with what sounds to be slow rumbling and reverberating doom drone guitar – however as a guitar is not listed instrument on the liner notes, this element may in fact be a heavily treated organ tone.
For the final album track ‘Nuktelia’ it draws the album to a conclusion with a broad assemblage of the various sounds which precede it. Here the tone and atmosphere is one of an expansive cavernous space, where a lone violin plays out a maudlin melody against a backdrop of windswept drones. Later in the track, noise feedback, abstract riffed guitars, pummelling percussion and a moody piano tune each take turns in making an appearance.
For what is a rather academically focused concept album involving the contributions of a large list of artists, ‘Chthonian Music’ hangs together extremely well as a varied yet coherent and immersive album. There is a lot to like here, whether it is channel the most abstract aspects of underground metal or flirting with more academic experimental sounds. As such the role of the project coordinators’ in organising the original sound installation and this complimentary album to formally document the event should not be underestimated.