Some folks correlate colours with numbers. Others can taste certain words. In the world of music, a few artists comparably create their work in a kind of chromesthesia. Their music is not only a sequence of sounds, but an attempt to convey a visual narrative. We may not see exactly what they saw. But on these two short records, the ocular impulse enriches what we hear.
Gotham Child is the new release from musician and filmmaker, Johno Wells. Billed as an EP (though thirty-four minutes long), it attempts the sonic expression of a graphic novel. The story begins in medias res with an action sequence. Irregular, thumping bass is steadied by endorphin floods of glitchy interference. Layers of beats, clicks, and whirrs give the sense of overlapping crossfire. Whatever is taking place across its five “chapters”, the backdrop of this record is clear. This is the dark, dystopic Gotham of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
Entitled “Solace”, the second instalment pitches rhythmic low-end against minimal beat patterns. A synthetic melody falters in, damaged but somehow reassuring. To regard this unsettling atmosphere as a place of comfort, our vision of the urban exterior must become even more grim. Across the release, post-techno cyberpunk is the general aesthetic. Diffused textures and rhythms arrive like broken transmissions of a defunct machine. They combine into an aggressive mass. Shards of bass gain metallic autonomy, thrilling but unnerving.
The closing track, “Rattle”, is sinister and unsafe. My impression is of acid rain, dripping with a sizzle into electrical hardware. Here, the bass booms remotely, like roadworks in a nearby street. The frantic energy is gone, but the dark cityscape remains around us.
Francis Theberge is another artist whose work crosses between the visual and auditory. His new EP, The Burial of William B., attempts a miniature cinematic experience. Compared to Gotham Child, the sound is less harsh, and the emphasis is textural rather than rhythmic. Both releases centre their plot on the death of a character. If Wells evokes the visceral throes of death, Theberge instead captures a funerary mood.
The EP is in four short parts, followed by a full-length track. Rather than a final graveside dirge, this last track is a “director’s cut”, replaying the story in our mind’s eye. We begin with the soundtrack to a grainy piece of footage from a storm-beset freight train. The clack of railway tracks gives way to a throb of footsteps, conducted through bone to the walker’s own ear. What this record lacks in techno intensity, it certainly makes up for in eerie atmosphere.
As the burial begins, the faint pulsing is swallowed into analogue crackling, half-heard voices, and subdued tones occasionally turning shrill. Is that a screech of brakes and a faint announcement? Or is the coffin being lowered, an oratory softly read? Like Gotham Child, this record is one of darkness. But in the final track, Theberge gives hope for some peace succeeding existence. The ambient notes bounce off surfaces with a shimmer, as birds chirp along to an imperceptible hymn.
Absorbing both of these records, we might see storyboards unfolding, or flowing colours, or just the backs of our eyelids. Whether we can conjure up the intended images is largely irrelevant. The synesthetic process already took place for Wells and Theberge. We can thank it for shaping their sounds and lending narrative form to these successful EPs. (Samuel Rogers)