The drone release of the season is finally here: ten tapes in a wooden box, featuring nearly seven hours of music. This has been a labor of love for the Helen Scarsdale Agency as it celebrates its 50th release. On Corrosion is about entropy: the corrosion of civility, of sanity, of society. Many of the artists have a personal stake, writing about the end of relationships. Some fear the end of the world. Together they create a tapestry of things falling apart, with little hope of retrieval. This is a bleak worldview, but in the hands of these artists, it’s also beautiful: the glory of decay. Years from now, these cassettes will themselves erode, embodying the dreams of their creators.
Where to start? The experience will be different for every person as they work their way through the box. We’re especially in awe of the female artists on the roster, so that’s where we’ll begin.
“All Is Crushed All Is Perfect” is an evocative title for the opening track of 9 Dreams in Erotic Mourning, evidence that titles do count in instrumental music, if we allow them to do so. Alice Kemp plants elongated tones in a meditative fashion, but it’s a bit of a curveball, as the electronics enter into the second track, accompanied by sighs. What is erotic mourning? Is it missing sex, or embracing the idea of sadness in eroticism (sometimes known as “beautiful agony”)? She’s not happy ~ but she is. She also makes dolls: Purge Dolls, Chapel Dolls, Little Dolls, Burned and Kissed. As one might guess, these are not normal dolls, but beautiful in a charred manner. “Song for Unnamed Things” returns to the sparse nature of the opener, but sounds more like an appliance being turned on and off, accompanied by chimes. Then another left turn: painful exhalations akin to a rusty hinge; ritualistic tolling, as if for one lost. Kemp turns her voice into a tea kettle, but we’re not sure it wants to be removed from the heat. When “A Small Act of Violence” concludes with the sound of a spade, the implication is that Kemp may not be as passive a mourner as first believed.
Turning now to another Alice (Kundalini/She Spread Sorrow), we find another complex artist whose work addresses issues of sex, pain, and degradation, while underlining female power. This is a difficult twist, but Kundalini has managed to discomfort and energize in a cycle of releases over the past few years ~ her visual art being as important as her aural. “The Solitude of the Giant’s House” begs for exegesis. While the protagonist ~ a psychological captive? ~ roams the halls, foreboding tones drip from the walls. “Star” offers a different sort of short story, in which another woman “had a little girl that she loved so much … she wouldn’t take care of herself, and she was always so tired. She couldn’t feel anyone’s love. She was lost in fairy tales and fantasies and darkness. She was so alone; do you miss her eyes? Her mind collapsed.” Is the little girl real, or a memory of the girl she was? The tale is harrowing, delivered in Kundalini’s signature whisper. The listener may approach Orchid Seeds as a work of narrative poetry, and attempt to read between the lines ~ or simply give in to the darkness of this claustrophobic music.
At first, one is put off by the title of Torn Asunder – The Half Girl‘s opening track. “Fucking Bitch” is an ugly epithet from which one wants to turn away. But Ester Kärkkäinen (Himukalt) has another goal in mind: to expose the soulless nature of toxic masculinity. Her music is an indictment of the violence directed at women, and is violent in return: abraded, distorted, industrial. At times she sounds as if she is wielding a power drill over planks. Is she reenacting “The Cask of Amontillado?” The cover seems to dare the viewer to judge by appearance, but the photo is less about the viewer than the artist. At the same time, it seems a self-assessment: is this all I am? Sadly, to some people, the answer is yes ~ but that doesn’t mean it’s true. “Cruel by Most Estimations” smacks down every bit of dialogue with harsh feedback. Himukalt is the destroyer of the degrader, and her album is a powerful document that is too loud to ignore, turning the tables on those who use volume as a weapon. Many half-girls live throughout the world, but Kärkkäinen hears them ~ she may have been one herself ~ and seeks to lead them to wholeness.
Tacking a different subject, Kleistwahr offers two side-long meditations on the upcoming season. Everything sounds pretty at the beginning, like the first flakes ~ but it doesn’t last. The appropriately titled Winter is awash in synth, harp, and buried voices, and seems mournful and resigned. Or maybe it’s just the titles, which include “Everything We Loved Is Gone.” Ten minutes into Side A, the ambience is swallowed in a blizzard of drone, and then the cycle begins again, with organ tones laying the groundwork like permafrost. “Rust Eats the Future,” says Kleistwahr’s Gary Mundy. “The Solstice Will Not Save Us.” And by Side B, the drones have indeed taken over the sound field. Winter may not sound like winter, but it sounds like the feeling of fear and loneliness that winter can produce. There’s no reason to fear winter, but millions suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it’s unclear whether this tape will offer them solace or despair. Either way, Mundy produces a cold, dark empathy, a soundtrack of the land’s apparent death before its inevitable ~ yet hidden ~ resurrection.
Pinkcourtesyphone (Richard Chartier) calms things way, way, way down on Shouting at Nuance, and the title suggests possible intention or interpretation. In recent years, nuance has been devalued in public discourse, ceding space to ever-louder repetitions of dug-in themes. No one wins in such exchanges. Terry Tempest Williams’ recent Erosion: Essays of Undoing makes a connection between the erosion of objects and the erosion of civility; Chartier uses a pair of side-long meditations as metaphor, reflecting a myriad of deep emotions in the face of decay. Memories fade; tapes corrode; the past becomes an untrustworthy loop. The loops of “Problematic Interior 3” start in static and dissolve in wind; in “Alternatory,” they blow around as if trapped in a ghost town. Snippets of classical music waft through the air, melodies forever incomplete. By mid-piece, a dust storm of drone descends on the town; shuttered in their houses, the lonely residents hear harmonies borne on the breeze. Is it safe to go outside? Only as safe as it is to remember.
Francisco Meirino takes the loop experiment a step further. If we didn’t know any better, we’d guess that he hates tapes. After discovering an old set of reel-to-reels, he “scratched, crumpled, drowned and buried” these elderly victims, then exhumed them for A Collection of Damaged Reel Tape Loops. One can imagine the tapes ~ seen in tangled Christmas light fashion on the cover ~ groaning “Why won’t you let us rest in peace?” But in their new form, new beauty erupts: disembodied voices, sluggish songs, savage static. The end of Side A sounds like a locked groove, the beginning of Side B like an alarm. The music conveys the message that corrosion need not be a nemesis. Ironically, the existence of this composition on cassette suggests that some admiring listener might break the case apart, remove the tape and dissect it for their own nefarious purposes, creating yet another generation of repurposed sound. We can’t help thinking that Meirino would be proud.
Fossil Aerosol Mining Project is known for excavating the past; their practice is portrayed by their name. But unlike its peers,, Hydration Equilibrium also contains phrases of funkiness, as found in the opening piece, “Not Intended As.” The effect recalls Tom Petty’s video for “You Got Lucky,” which begins with members of the band finding an old cassette player in a post-apocalyptic landscape. FAMP also works with VHS and 35mm film, creating montages that rummage through raw material while offering a tangled nostalgia. The group calls the opening sample “an ugly reminder that not all things from previous decades should be treasured;” yet the fact of its inclusion means that it is treasured, if only as an example of what not to treasure. What will listeners make of this aural spaghetti? Some may muse on the disposability of popular culture. But others, hearing tracks like “Beneath the Rails,” may be buoyed by the resurrection of sounds thought lost.
G*park (Mark Zeier) offers the sparsest album of the boxed set, packing protuberances of percussion with distorted snippets of everything from water to screams. Nosode is a chopped-up affair in which every sound receives a dark reception. We think that’s an ear on the front, but we’re not sure; the implication is that every sound is important, from a dripping drainpipe to broken pottery. While much of the tape celebrates found sound and the glee of smashing things up, there’s also a sense of the macro ~ the sound that lasts only a second, but resonates in the mind. As such, the composition focuses on echo as erosion, reminding listeners that while decay is a slow process, sometimes things fall apart quickly as well. The glass is neither half empty nor half full, but lies in shards at one’s feet.
Relay for Death stretches from drone to noise on Mutual Consuming. The project is comprised of twin sisters Roxann and Rachal Spikula, whose music taps the ritualistic, occasionally receding (in the middle of “Intone the Morph Orb”) to allow room for meditation. In contrast, “Terminal Ice Wind” leaves little room for anything but survival. One imagines the generator dying at a polar encampment, the scientists battling the forces of nature, walking though white-out conditions with one hand on a rope. The music is a reminder of the harshness of nature; sure, we’re destroying our planet, but our planet can also destroy us with fury raw and untamed. The piece’s most powerful moment arrives nine and a half minutes in as it descends to silence: the silence during which someone decides that it’s safe to go outside, and then gets eaten. The full fury of the storm arrives in the final minutes, the sisters taking out their frustration on the world’s ills by imagining themselves as a purifying fire from which only crows can escape.
And now to the tenth tape, an outlier from Swedish noise duo Neutral (Dan Johansson and Sofie Herner). Their drones seem perpetually on the verge of eruption, even when accompanied by abraded whispers and sparse monologues. Lågliv (Lowlife) is preoccupied by “murk,” which the duo describes as a discontent with the staid condition of rock. Their solution is to apply their own brand of aural corrosion to the pre-existing corrosion of creativity, hoping that two negatives make a positive. The music is lo-fi, a purposeful avoidance of the glossy. Each dead fly might be the corpse of another band who allowed their punk spirit to die. The suite on Side A concludes with “Punkt,” which seems less the MTV show (“Punk’d”) than a new application of the punk ethos. It’s refreshing to hear a modern act so unconcerned with the mainstream. On Side B, an organ accompanies their plaintive, distorted vocals. Handel’s Messiah this is not; it’s not trying to be high art, but raw emotion, a response to the corrosion around us.
This boxed set weaves a tapestry of anger and despair, raging at the forces that be. On Corrosion is a rejection of misogyny and moral bankruptcy. These ten artists may be aghast at the forces of societal corrosion and the resulting effects on the planet, but they’ve channeled their emotions to create a new artifact for the 21st century. Open the box and one will encounter many of the world’s dark forces; but as Pandora once discovered, at the bottom of the box is hope. (Richard Allen)