The concept of transmedia storytelling has been ruthlessly co-opted by advertising agencies as a means of commodifying creativity or building a brand. Whilst this might keep coffers topped up, other artists have considered this method for more expressive reasons. Harmony Korine described his recent film “Spring Breakers” as a “pop poem” in which themes and ideas loop, and the structure resembles that of an electronic pop song. The cult author Mark Z Danielewski has described his works of fiction as refractions of other narrative forms: “If House of Leaves tackles the movie, Only Revolutions the music and The Fifty Year Sword the campfire story, then The Familiar will show how the novel can stalk, take down and devour the television series.”
Maelstrom takes Danielewski’s perspective from Only Revolutions and inverts it. Her Empty Eyes is a novel told through the format of an album.
The LP is the result of a recording process that hinges upon Maelstrom’s dedication to self hypnosis. The producer describes this technique as “a way to fully exist in the present”. From this methodology a sonic novel has been born. Marina, like the protagonist in House of Leaves, is a photojournalist caught up in the Spanish civil war in the latter half of the 1930s. Her investigation centres around the death of Jose Robles, an academic and independent left wing activist believed by American communist sympathisers to have been a fascist spy (although the general consensus tends to disagree).
Whilst the track titles guide us through the unravelling narrative, the music weaves an emotional tapestry, from hard and chilling to warm and jubilant. Slippery snares support emphatic electronic stabs, producing an air of intrigue, of doubt, of mystery. As the narrative journeys from the fractured relationship of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, through the uprising of Mujeres Libres, to La Mancha and the flaying of Andreu Nin Perez by the NKVD (later re-named the KGB), the music yields sombre and melancholy tones. Persistent bass throbs combine with a swooping synth malaise to underpin the morose experiences of the protagonists.
Only on “Battle of Jarama” does the music seem ill at ease with the narrative. The track reflects a fatal skirmish between the Republicans and Nationalists, and its unsettlingly joyful stomp appears at odds with the doomed conflict. The sound seems more suitable to a heroic fighting montage in a comic book adaptation.
The bass line of closer “Snow Falls Across The Border” sounds like the panicked collective heartbeat of hundreds of thousands of Spanish refugees shuffling their way across a mountain range as shards of frozen precipitation chill their bones. A haunted voice repeats the titular refrain. At the end, we are left wondering, what might a photojournalist see with empty eyes? (Jon Buckland)