The Helen Scarsdale Agency: Fire and Ice

HMS027_front“Some say the world will end in fire,” writes Robert Frost, “Some say in ice.” A pair of new albums from The Helen Scarsdale Agency represents both viewpoints: Jim HaynesScarlet the former, Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson‘s So Long the latter.

As I write this column, New York is enveloped in snow: white-out conditions, fit for neither man nor beast.  Sigmarsson’s So Long provides the perfect soundtrack.  As a third of Stilluppsteypa, the artist has always been fascinated with extremes, last covered here in 2012 on Góða Nótt, the band’s ice cold collaboration with BJ Nilsen.  So Long plunges deeper below the frost line, down to bone and splintered rock.  It’s been a labor of love for many years, first surfacing in an edited edition and finally heard here at its intended length.

Neither soothing nor terrifying, So Long is instead the long, unfeeling night and never-ending day: the impassive, unfeeling crackle of frozen goggles, the loss of perspective in a blizzard, the inevitable, unstoppable white.  Nature does not care whether we live or die, and these soulless sounds exist as a reminder.  The label calls this “polar impressionism”, as good a description as any.  Long tones are interrupted by stretches of silence; nary a melody is found, the connection between notes as brittle as the ice above an air pocket.  And yet a small amount of movement can be heard: water struggling over rock, wind racing across plains.  The landscape is oppressive without being alive.  Only once does the recording threaten to burst at the seams, a wooly mammoth blast sounding at the half-hour mark.  Disembodied voices appear near the end of the second track, like a recording left in the snow.  No rescuers have been sent.


HMS030_frontAfter this, one needs to defrost for a while, but Jim Haynes turns the heat all the way up.  Scarlet is as dark as its title implies, and twice as fiery: an explosion of analogue electronics, pops and fizzes and flames, expanded from a strobe light and sound installation.  (Warning: people who have seizure conditions should not watch the video below.)  The imagery appears to be in black and white, but strange afterimages appear, some in scarlet; the color of blood is part of the presentation.  (For proof, pause at the tail end of 07:42.)  The titles each represent shades of red or subjects related to the color, from “Cerise Cerise”, (pink), which does not sound at all like a girl’s crib, to “Alizarin” (a purplish dye) to “Kazanlǎk” (the Bulgarian center of rose oil extraction) to the passion and blood of the playwright Racine.  Intensely cinematic, the cassette weaves the red thread through time and between disciplines, in the same manner as Petrels wove history throughout Haeligewielle.  Pulses surface like the protests of a heart; drones overwhelm them like pools of blood, pouring from a fallen body.  This is not a placid release; the fire that it exudes burns from the inside out.  Passion is fire, whether love or anger, and threatens to consume all.

Despite his name, Frost expressed in his poem a preference for fire, while displaying a grudging admiration for ice.  After listening to these two recordings, listeners may find themselves similarly torn.  (Richard Allen)

Available here

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