Metzengerstein ~ Alchemy to Our Days

metzengersteinThe connection between the psychedelic and the mystical is at this point traditional, since in pop music, at least, it has been explored time and again since the 1960s in many different ways, leading through very distinct sounds, from the hippie utopias derived from prog-rock to the ritualistic performances of noise musicians. Even though it’s essentially the promise of an experience of the entire cosmos, psych music has developed a recognizable set of sounds that have enabled its easy tagging as an entire genre, and Metzengerstein have boldly made an incursion that sets it apart from more common-sense approaches that imply adding new instruments, or emphasizing one extreme of the sound set (like New Age did with electronics). They’ve done something much more elaborate and conceptually baroque, in the sense that, first, it’s better if you’re already pretty familiar with the genre tropes, and second, it’s seemingly focused on mimesis as departure point for exploring the psych-mystical link.

The name of the band could come from an Edgar Allan Poe story, published in 1832, and the subtitle of which is “A Tale in Imitation of the German”. What is interesting to my interpretation of the album is not so much the Gothic itself but the discussion around Poe’s use of the genre’s conventions in the story: is their exaggeration satirical or straight-faced? The question might lead nowhere, but the issue of imitation (usually of nature) is a staple of the history of all arts, and its relevance for Alchemy To Our Days (and perhaps the band’s work at large) can become clearer when considering the playfulness of both the track names (“Conversion to Wha Wha” – I searched for a while just in case it was a real religion, but hey, if pedals are your thing…) and the constant suggestion of ritual. What ritual, after all, isn’t a reproduction of the order of the world, itself a representation?

The initial track, “Burāq”, integrates Giovanni Lami’s field recordings of the Temple of Jerusalem, sounds that stand in for a place and time, perhaps not a traditional form of mimesis but an instance of mirroring nonetheless: it is the place of ritual for all three ‘religions of the book’, a place utterly charged with meaning that we might never see, but at least we can hear it. The title might refer to Muhammad’s one-night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, carried by a heavenly body, an event that in psych terms is a lightning expansion of consciousness so vast it carried the Prophet’s mind and body across space and time through an impossible, direct flow of the divine. As listeners, our bodies might be ‘here’, but our minds and senses are taken somewhere else, not by the sheer life force that underlines all that exists, but by electronic manipulation, by artificial means, by the setting of a stage that re-tells a story with another form, in imitation not of the then pop-literary German but of the pop-musically religious. Birdlike sounds litter “Peak of Meditation”, probably electronically produced, an altogether obvious association of a natural sublime (the ‘peak’ of a mountain, a ‘high’ walk towards the sky) with the fundamental act of mystics, channelled through simple, often sustained electronic tones, performed as if it was the music of ritual.

Others have jokingly approached the genre, but, like the Master Musicians of Bukkakke that gave us three wonderful Totem albums, have become truly drawn to the wondrous possibilities of becoming one with the universe, dropping the satire in the way. Alchemy to Our Days, however, feels like a profoundly imitative incursion, one that makes use of concepts from free improvisation and noise in order to produce music that is not so much at the limits of psych but at its core, reigniting the conventions it manipulates by exaggeration, by bursting them with a laughter not born from scorn but from an intimate knowledge of its drama. If a ritual is a performance of the world’s order, a symbolic reproduction that needs constant re-enactment, Metzengerstein frame psych music itself as the act; all the world’s a stage, after all, and this double-distancing gives Alchemy to Our Days a vantage point from which to perform, to imitate, to re-create psychedelics anew.

In the end, if you’re not familiar with psychedelic music, perhaps even a fan, this album might not be for you. However, if you have a place in your heart for it, this will definitely sound simultaneously fresh and familiar, like praying every day, like meditating, like seeing the sun rise. (David Murrieta)

Available here.

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