This second collaborative effort (following last year’s Lovers single) from Vienna’s Phirnis and London’s Katarrhaktes presents two like-minded artists at the top of their game. It’s amazing how well their sounds mesh together, but once one learns their stories, it’s less of a surprise; instead, the collaboration seems fated.
We introduced Phirnis (Kai Ginkel) on these pages in 2013 with Feeding Lions. In 2014, he added an excellent mix. But Ginkel had already been recording for more than a decade, quietly amassing a treasure trove of tracks on his webpage, a selection of sonic wonders that lurked in the underground, waiting to be released on a wider scale. Over the years, he’d moved away from the noise scene in the direction of nuanced drone, but preserved an avid experimental streak.
Now enter Katarrhaktes (Malcolm James McLean), approaching from the angle of melodic EBM. Each artist had adopted a unique moniker; each had been recording for a decade; each had progressed from a harsher field. Consider Katarrhaktes’ “Something Like Loneliness” from 2011’s Pareidolia, a sweet, surprisingly tender ambient piece arriving on the heels of two industrial bangers. But the roots of the current work can be heard most clearly on the album disquiet, which collects works created under the playful constraints of the Disquiet Junto group, to which Phirnis has also contributed. Here we hear the roots of the current sound, which balances distortion with clarity, abrasion with smooth surfaces.
On the surface, Sleepers is an album in which specific credit is given to specific performers. One records, one remixes, and both meet in the middle. But the album is more of a true collaboration, the culmination of a shared vision. Even knowing the works of each composer, it’s impossible to extricate the sound of one from the other, especially given the fact that each is still changing. Suffice it to say that neither has ever been satisfied with the safe or maudlin, and the listener is the beneficiary.
So sure, the title track might be considered ambient, but it’s not the type of ambience that one is accustomed to hearing. Beneath the pretty bells lies a deep, dark drone, an electronic rumble that approaches on a deserted railway. The boundaries of volume break as well; one is unsure of the peak level until the track has ended. And then arrive the slow beats and wandering electronic warbles of “Perchance to Dream”, like Katarrhaktes’ early work dropped in molasses, followed by the dial-up loops of “Black Clouds”. Unusual sonic events unfold as phylum-free creatures exit the train, a perfect reflection of the album’s inspiration: the liminal state between waking and sleep. One thinks of Hieronymus Bosch’s tinier inventions, who were often frightening and cuddly at the same time.
“Somnambulism” dives into the heart of the nightmare, with rain, wolves and the sound of a starting car. But there is no escape; the waking dream returns us to our bed. Phirnis and Katarrhaktes seem to be investigating the Id, flipping the script to allow the subconscious to be the skin and the conscious the blood flowing beneath. By the industrial-strength “Animals”, all hell has broken loose. Thunder sounds in the grand finale as wind re-activates the chimes. And then back to the beginning: a perfect cycle, a closed circle, a man dreaming he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. (Richard Allen)