I don’t really know where I am or what I’ve covered in the stages of grief. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure if I’m on the path. The dumpster fire that is this global pandemic, this technicolor late-stage capitalist wonderland, rages on as a certain melancholy sinks in. Whether I’m grieving or not seems unimportant.
If I am in the stages, though, maybe I’ve hit acceptance. It’s not the kind of acceptance that comes with healing, just a deep-seated understanding. One that sits more in the back of the throat than the top of the head, landing in the gut and bypassing the heart altogether.
But it’s a pandemic, so I’ll take what I can get. In accepting that the world will be itself for now, I free up just enough space to look for what’s good around me. It’s not much, but I’ll cling to this: people have been dropping incredible albums this year. I get the sense that those still finding the energy and motivation to stay active have turned to recording because they haven’t had to invest in live performances. Moreover, people who have been sitting on albums, trying to find the right time to send it out in the world, seem to be saying “fuck it. It’s now or never.”
To be honest, it’s hard to keep up. There’s an intimidating amount of incredible work floating out in the world right now and it feels like anytime I cross something off my list, three new albums take their place.
It’s a pretty good problem to have.
Two recent albums in particular have stood out to me: A Mimesis Of Nothingness by Siavash Amini and Smoke by Daniel Menche. On their own, both albums are excellent, relying on an incredible use of space and atmosphere to produce a haunting listen that sticks with you far beyond the album’s end. Although Amini mixes in various textures and field recordings, the use of slow-moving synths that arc over the top of these sonic landscapes provides the main focus in both recordings. It’s not necessarily new, but it’s a gesture that I’ll never get sick of.
Beyond just being good, these albums stuck out because of my own particular upbringing in the noise scene: started listening in the mid-2000s, lives in the Midwest, mostly listened to harsh noise and industrial-influenced stuff at the time. And because of this particular background, I had a very particular reaction to these albums that I don’t think most outside of that context would.
After listening to both albums and hearing those lilting and dissonant synths, I thought to myself “Why are people suddenly copping Envenomist?”
I have no idea if Amini or Menche have any familiarity with the project. And Envenomist definitely isn’t the first artist to use oscillators like this, but the project’s dedication to that sound across multiple albums will always link that gesture to his work for me.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that Envenomist’s sound and that sneering gesture perfectly fit our current moment. And that I had answered my own question.
For those not in the know, Envenomist was a solo project manned by David Reed out of Columbus, Ohio that started around 2005. While subtle and important details shift between the foreground and background on different albums, a dedication to sequencers and oscillators remains present throughout the entire Envenomist discography. Never one to overwhelm the sonic landscape, Envenomist manages to create menacing drones that straddle the line between delicate beauty and terrifying nightmare.
You can pick just about any of the albums from his discography to start, but my favorite work of his is Bound Dominions. As low, pulsing rumbles and arpeggiating textures creep in the background across all six tracks, those lilting oscillators that have spotted the 2020 experimental music landscape crawl out onto center stage. At times, the synth tones edge towards harmony and create a brief moment of transcendence, but those instances fade within the timespan of a breath as a choking sense of dissonance takes over. A sliver of silence emerges as the oscillations fade out, but only for a second. Just enough time to almost, but not quite, relax your shoulders. The tension envelopes in waves, never actually reaching a climax but never fully releasing the listener either.
Matching this sonic landscape, the cover provides the perfect visual metaphor for the album. A serene, underwater atmosphere is produced as the sun shines through the water, only to be blocked out by a swarm of hammerhead sharks. A certain amount of movement comes through the photo, as the sharks swim from the left side of the frame to the right, implying that more have already passed and more are on their way.
Contextually, the sounds and visuals on Bound Dominions sit in stark contrast to the other noise artist putting sharks on their album covers. Known for spearheading the harsh noise wall subgenre, The Rita has always worked within specific thematic obsessions: ballet, obscure horror films, and also sharks. The album Thousand of Dead Gods, for example, consists primarily of distorted audio recordings from the inside of shark cages. It’s an overwhelming album, an all-encompassing wall of static white noise that pushes any other possible thought out of the listener’s head.
In contrasting Dead Gods and Bound Dominions, the thematic distinction between them seems to align with Zizek’s writing on violence. When he isn’t running his mouth about whatever pop culture thing popped up on his timeline that morning, Zizek actually does a pretty good job of breaking down violence into manageable and understandable categories.
According to the author, violence broadly divides itself into two different categories: subjective violence and objective violence. Subjective violence represents what we normally understand as violence, with one individual physically assaulting another. Murder, assault, those sorts of things. Objective violence, on the other hand, represents a slower and less direct approach. Usually enacted through some big social institution (the government, a corporation, or those intangible institutions like race or gender), objectives violence slowly undermines the ability of groups or individuals to live or be seen as fully human. Naming a single perpetrator in objective violence proves nearly impossible, which pushes this type of violence into the background despite the significant harm it causes.
The slow devastation of indigenous land provides a good example of objective violence. Fracking or industrial farming or whatever is destroying that ecology never truly involves one person attacking another. Instead, it happens indirectly and over time, slowly choking out the ability of anyone to live there while simultaneously undermining the personhood of those that call that land home.
To compare the aesthetic atmospheres of Envenomist and The Rita, the line between them seems to follow the same path. The aggressive distortion and mental image of sharks attacking a cage sits on the subjective side while the majestic parade of hammer head sharks situates itself within the subjective camp. And the audio on Bound Dominions seems to imply the same slow burn, occasionally rising in tension but never breaking into a full-on assault.
Because maybe it’s not a shark bite that will finally do you in. Maybe it’s just the fact that the sharks won’t let you leave, holding you underwater until you finally breath in the water.
In describing his recording process, Daniel Menche says, “Smoke was recorded while in isolation due to the intense smoke produced by the massive forest fires that ravaged Oregon throughout mid-September. It was such an overwhelming experience of dread that I could not help myself and had to make my own soundtrack to this horrendous gloom.” Unquestionably, that atmosphere comes through and the interaction between those oscillators plays a huge role in bringing that gloom and dread into a musical context.
Envenomist also managed to tap into that same low-lying and ever present terror, but just managed to do so nine years before our particular and modern horror. I can’t tell if that means this album is all the more important or actually unnecessary now that the world constantly manages to produce the same affect as Bound Dominions.
Either way, everything’s terrifying and violent. But at least we have good music to listen to.