Welcome to the dark side of the Birds of a Feather 3″ series. Hitchcock may have been the first to demonize birds in today’s popular culture, but the eerie nature of these animals is not hard to see. Even looking into a chicken’s hollow gaze can be chilling, as millions of years of calculated evolutionary strategies stare right through you into eternity. Some birds, however, appear more ominous than others. The common koel is a species of cuckoo, a group of birds known for being brood parasites. Females (she’s the speckled one on the cover) lay their eggs in other species’ nests, tricking unsuspecting mother birds into feeding imposter babies. Often by the end, the koel nestlings are twice the size as their exhausted surrogate parents.
Gail Priest is based in Sydney, Australia where the koels announce their return every September with their eerie and affected calls. Wanting to reflect their unsavory habits and off kilter sounds, she notes, “The resulting piece explores infiltration, imitation and subjugation as strategies.” By implementing the birds in a leading role, Priest has created a dynamic narrative where the voices change from kind-of-odd to haunting-your-mind.
The music is divided into two distinct movements. Opening with a windswept ambience, the common koels can be heard prophesizing hardship for all birdkind. Koels can sound like possessed owls, doves that smoke too much, or monkeys on pain medication. Priest uses these sounds to full affect, at one point creating a repeating drone nightmare with a barrage of different cuckoo calls. One isolated koel call cuts this off and begins to haunt our headphones on its own. It’s great to hear the birds in control, and the effect is unsettling. At times one wonders if the koels are speaking to us directly. Electronic skree and tremblings ultimately absorb the animals completely before the next phase of the piece begins.
The second movement welcomes the bird back, but this time it is led by a synthetic vibraphone. After getting its cold gears moving, the music churns like an engine made of ice, ritualizing the proceedings with a creepy mantra. The koels’ calls are affected with high pitched filters and are joined by a chthonic squealing high up in the claustrophobic clouds. It’s as if Priest is puppeteering the parasitic birds with an unholy invention, a swirling of wings aligning with the occult. Many of the pieces in this series have been ambient with birds integrated within, but Gail Priest’s Common Koel plays out like a creation myth with scary implications. You’ll never look at a cuckoo the same way after giving this your attention. And as if there were any doubt, at the track’s end, the koel will have the final say. (Nayt Keane)