Review Summary: Empty spaces, small gestures, and the sigh of an unearthly world.
Think, for a moment, about empty spaces.
Garages. Deserted parking lots. The abandoned house down the road. That imaginary space in the back of your head inhabited by unnameable fears manifested in hideous physical forms, forms that have a tendency to appear out of nowhere, only to dissipate into thin air. Tryptych
, a compilation of Demdike Stare's three vinyl-only releases from last year as well as a massive triple album in its own right, is a curious beast, existing halfway between these expansive and desolate places and a more insular sonic cocoon. The tracks have room to breathe; a hypnotizing beat slowly fades in here, a heartbeat pounds there. Yet they feel uneasy, filled with a quietly restless sense of urgency. At once distant and painfully intimate, Tryptych
envelops its listener in an eerie world where nothing is quite as it seems, where the most recognizably human sounds (a sitar sample, a snippet of speech) take on otherworldly qualities. This is insistently, irrepressibly dark
stuff, but it's also breathtakingly beautiful.
Which is what immediately sets Demdike Stare apart from the "witch house" tribe that they are so often grouped into. They don't get lumped into this niche for no reason - the duo's name references a 17th-century witch, after all - but the music they craft is noticeably absent of the massive synth tones and blown-out production of Salem and White Ring. Tryptych
doesn't really invite points of comparison, by virtue of its singularity and uniquely shaded color. So although a significant portion of 2010 was dedicated to the occult, the music that Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty are producing transcends trends and shoots straight for sublime. Rather than trying to grab your attention with ugly drum machines and superficially frightening antics, Demdike Stare choose to veil their songs in foggy analog hiss, adding a touch of warmth to the desolate mood that defines so much of this music. Forest of Evil
, the first of Tryptych
's three discs, benefits greatly from this sonic shroud, its discordant piano figures and ghostly washes of sound taking on an unearthly weight. Ambient while retaining a visceral edge, it's a gorgeous combination of noises, arresting in its psychedelic evocation of emptiness.
There it is again: emptiness. Tryptych
's negative spaces are just as important as its actual sounds. Silence takes on a palpable quality and creates tension, which remains resolutely unresolved. The claustrophobic chanting of "Hashshashin" should
build to a climax of emotional catharsis, but instead disintegrates into electronic noise. It feels unsatisfying at first - all that discomfort without any payoff!
- but it's ultimately a brilliant move. By forcing the listener to wallow in vaguely Middle Eastern sounds and foghorns sampled and cut up a la From Here We Go Sublime
, Whittaker and Canty reveal those sounds' inherently musical qualities while infusing them with a healthy dose of anxiety. They do the same thing with a vocal sample in the hypnotizing "Bardo Thodol"; Middle Eastern scales interact with a throbbing beat while that vocal, every aching, longing syllable of it, echoes and distorts until it becomes a distinctly inhuman entity. It's these moments where sound is presented in a fairly unadulterated form, only to be deconstructed mercilessly and left to decay, that define Tryptych
This obsession with the byproducts of sound manifests itself most clearly in songs like "A Tale Of Sand" and "Black Sun", where resonance itself becomes a rhythm or a melody. Detached by nature, these unique sonic constructions have a haunting, foreboding air about them. Unapproachable yet still inviting, they suck the listener into their vast, murky waters. Waters that are probably infested with insects, mind you; the digital clicks of "Regolith" are legitimately disgusting, the electronic equivalent of cockroaches crawling over dead bodies lying in a swamp. Yet even an image like this invites sick fascination. It's the soundtrack to our fears, our deepest desires, and most importantly, that strange place where the two meet. The lightly grimed dub of "The Stars Are Moving" is both a celebration of the impending apocalypse and the embodiment of our desires to go beyond our physical limits and escape the world as we know it, its lush and hazy vocal patches beckoning like the monolith in 2001
. In the song's final moments, we are transported to a place of cosmic fantasy, a completely weightless world. The beats disappear, replaced by endless reverberations. That's when you remember: there's no sound in space.
And so we return to that subject of empty space. Throughout Tryptych
, Demdike Stare seem obsessed with finding substance in the darkness of the void, whether that void is emotional or physical. It's evident in their song titles: "Nothing But The Night", "Black Sun", "Desert Ascetic". And it's evident in how they construct their songs. A cough is turned into a halting rhythmic figure in "Leptonic Matter". The periodic hum of an elevator becomes a spookily omnipresent pulse in "Library of Solomon Book 1". The smallest sounds are intensely magnified, transformed into impressive gestures. It's the humble roots of these songs that give them a feeling of closeness, a sense that you've been here
- even when you know you haven't. It's unsurprising, then, that while Tryptych
certainly recalls earlier works by William Basinski, Burial, Miles Davis, Yellow Swans, and Iannis Xenakis, it also sounds wholly original and unfamiliar. From the opening arpeggios of "(Dusk)" to the final pulsating hums of "Past Is Past", it is a thrillingly varied and compelling listen. For almost three hours, you are awestruck in its presence; it surrounds you, swallows you whole. Harrowing" Definitely. Exhausting" Perhaps. Unpleasant" Not in the slightest.