Ultratumba (Afterlife) is a study in contradictions that begins with the Goya-esque paint of Emile Legarde. The cover portrait is ugly yet alluring, disturbing yet entrancing, with what most would call “pretty” colors (cerulean blue) used to portray a dysfunctional family. The child seems stunted, perhaps dead (see the hole in the crown), and is in the process of being devoured by his father. The child’s shrunken eyes are offset by the mother’s double set of eyes ~ distrustful, jealously protective. There is nothing to see here, she seems to challenge. Oh, but there is.
The music is similarly surreal and disorienting. The track titles include (by rough translation) “Everything was white,” “Home on the tracks,” “Ferro Family” and “We Want to See You,” suggesting a trajectory from an outwardly stable home to realization (“Mom is a purple animal”) to the title track, which implies a sort of resolution: either confrontation, death or a combination of the two. unavena‘s spoken word passages begin as furtive whispers, but by the center of the set have broken their boundaries, seeming to expand beyond the speakers into the center of the room, with a power that cannot be denied. The duo calls the work “a family dialogue, full of sadness, acceptance and hope, that digs into the origin of melancholy.”
Mon Ninguén‘s electronic backdrop seems at times nostalgic, recalling 90s gothic synth. It’s no surprise that the duo is popular in gothic-industrial circles, although there’s some mystery as to where they’ve been for the past fifteen years, after four releases from 1999-2006. Perhaps they have escaped ~ or incorporated ~ their own ghosts. And then there are those videos. “A casa por las vías” begins with searching hands, first free, but quickly trapped behind a shield, like family secrets. Bugs, flowers, and crows atop the statue of a saint suggest internal struggle. Broken glass, tall trees, a dangerous nail. Then the album’s first narration, backed by a spider, the moon, worms. The hand tears through the shield. And now, pounding drums and fire so bright it turns the black and white to color. The ruckus awakens masked ballet dancers. The hands that were free at the start turn skeletal. A porcelain couple twirls, a memory of simpler times. A burning wish, aloft. The earlier images return like a cycle of abuse and apology.
On the album proper, a thick drone decorates “Familia Ferro,” with industrial crashes and clangs. This is the fog of growing up in a dangerous household. Thoughts become a buzz of degradation and self-humiliation. We incorporate all the worst lessons. When others are not around to put us down, we do so ourselves. How much more can the listener take? The video for “Arenas calientes” is brighter, a woman walking in tall fields, birds that seem slightly less sinister. But then there’s a beast with glowing green eyes, also in the field: fruit, flowers, danger. The drone rises, drowning out all comfort and reason. The hands, the hands, the hands. But now also the lips. Whispers travel speaker to speaker, an internal dialogue. Is the pent-up anger ready to explode?
unavena’s sound levels are turned up for the subsequent piece, as if she is now in control, having wrested power from her parents. But what an awful power, won at such a high cost. In its wake, “Mammillaria sempervivi” is almost poplike, suggesting a burden lifted: melody over dissonance, an inviting keyboard line, rhythmic drums. The title refers to a cactus: dissuading on the outside, sustaining on the inside. The synthesizers, and by extension, the world, seem less dark; not sunny, but bearable. After such pain, can there really be hope? Must we wait for a literal ultratumba, or might a post-traumatic afterlife be possible, even here, even now? (Richard Allen)