Whettman Chelmets ~ Long Read Memories

Memory is a constant in Whettman Chelmets’ work, but it is not the kind of exploration that centers on the ephemeral and the nostalgic. Instead, his music delves into absence, the failure of recollection, and in this album, the many types of pain with which it has imprinted the skin. Long Read Memories are the thoughts that constitute the neural maps of your whole body, the ones that violently intrude your muscles with the electricity of spasms and involuntary movements. They are not ephemeral nor nostalgic: they remain, and they burn, they are grafted into the labyrinthine patterns of the mind as signs for it not to get lost and always return to its true maker.

Chelmets’ brother was arrested for murder in 1987, when he was 17 and the artist was 9. His life sentence has meant building a relationship mediated by confinement, but also by the grinding gears of jurisprudence and the flaring recollections of a childhood that recorded all that grief into a complex emotional landscape. “Superpredators”, the first track, uses echoing field recordings and spacey, layered semi-modular synth drones to create a dense, steadily growing mass of quietly, almost calmly unnerving sounds: a moral panic never has people screaming in the streets – it is enacted with the tranquility of a bureaucrat. At the very heart of this acute, disturbing mass lies a child, a victim of society that in acts of violence comes to reproduce it, making victims out of others. Realization and responsibility immediately shadow that reproduction, a singular terror that is also an internal storm, subdued and immobile, like the short, repetitive melody in “Somebody Do Something”.

The explosion comes afterward. “The Devil DoubleCrossed You”, which begins softly with a happy, almost psychedelic harmony, quickly transforms into a noise track, blasting electronics and a heart-wrenching scream that then segues into a deeply sad synth sequence. The field recordings repeat, their continuous phrases becoming distorted, an anger and a sorrow that in their meeting create a sense of powerlessness, the blasts and the scream distilled into an essence that speaks plainly in the language of pain. “Farmers Chemical Plant” follows this pain with a sinister edge, brimming with tense anticipation for what I feel is a cruelty to come, ultimately configured by the “Steps to the Old Courthouse”. Chelmets said of this track: “I was a couple of weeks’ shy of my 10th birthday when my brother had his trial. I remember being there for quite a bit of it though not in the courtroom as much. Details were too graphic for me and defense hinged on a chaotic homelife that was my own.” His brother already had his sentence, and during Chelmets’ testimony the attorney “only got one statement out. “These 12 people want to kill your brother”. None looked at me. Prosecutor objected. Sustained. I never spoke.” The noise of the courtroom is complemented by a noisy, almost grinding melodic arrangement, an overwhelming sense of dread that seems to have no end, a symbolic punishment cruelly handed out to a kid and a family that could do nothing more already.

The second half of the album starts with “Miller vs. Alabama”, throwing us straight into the present, its title referencing a 2012 case in which the US Supreme Court ruled life sentences for juvenile offenders unconstitutional. The somber quality of the “Steps” is slowly, progressively transformed into a bright upwards drone, or in other, simpler words, into hope. It is important, at this point, to note that all these transitions are not marked by hard limits, by stops and starts, but are free-flowing, like suddenly recalling something painful in the midst of an activity that makes you happy. That is the very nature of a long-read memory, informing, whether you’re conscious of it or not, every rhythm of your everyday life. “Longread Memories Separated by Concrete” is a lifetime of connections articulated in a present that, unlike the tumultuous clarity of the past, is hazy, its drones longer and sparser, its tone lighter and yet full of reverb. Memory has no intermediate state, its ephemeral core not a function of distance but of intensity, its weight burdening the here and now with echoes indefinite and unmoored from the deluded grip of reason. “I Still Miss You When Thanksgiving Comes”, states the last track, its recordings paradoxically loud and soft, distant and near, the drones now a bittersweet surrender to the painful ambiguity of the time being. It works like the contrasting pair of “The Devil DoubleCrossed You”, hopeful but melancholy, passive and intense, the anger and the sorrow meeting no longer as powerlessness but as patience. It is still like a burn, but the process of scarring now feels a bit more like healing, like relief: memory will always come back to this scar, but it now holds the possibility of feeling differently.

Sometimes, very personal albums are difficult inasmuch as certain situations are too much of an inner experience for others to grasp. While uncommon, the context of Long Read Memories is entirely social, it speaks of community, of family, and of the bonds between them all; they all drop in and out of the mind as charged moments of remembrance. This album seems therefore like a gift of empathy, a mesh of the personal and the political whose expression we are fortunate to be able to listen to, simply because the artist might have decided not to make it. Like any good gift, it might not show you what the other’s mind is, but it sure shows you what it is like, and that is truly worthy of appreciation, it is the very first step of understanding something that might be entirely alien to your own experience. (David Murrieta Flores)

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