Review Summary: A monolith
"Who gives a f*ckin' $hit how long a scene is?
- David Lynch, Circa 2015-2016
Media is relatively uniform in the amount of time it wishes you to engage with it. In music, physical format tends to be the deciding factor. Occasionally a label will put out a double LP if the work is allowed to dictate proceedings, but of course the work is still massaged to fit onto said two LPs. Television, on the other hand, has its limitations framed by broadcasting slots; both media whittled to fit their respective modes of consumption. Written media is a little different, as books can vary in length depending on the author's intent to draw the narrative, though even then editors and publishers have different ideas about what should and should not be printed. Films, which vary dramatically in length in places, still very rarely tend to breach the 3 hour mark. Even the above quoted Lynch, who encouraged his audience to engage with a man spray painting shovels for three minutes, has Inland Empire
cap out around this length. Exceptions to the "rules" such as they are do lurk in the back alleys. James Clavell has several old-testament-sized novels, particularly those which make up his Asian Saga. Ashraf Shishir's Amra Ekta Cinema Banabo
clocks in at around 21 hours of cinema, and on the experimental side of film are various works which would take you more than a week to sit all the way through.
Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte have been self-releasing music (with the occasional release through independent labels) as Natural Snow Buildings since the turn of the millennium and are no strangers to pushing the limits of what even the more esoteric breed of music consumer considers a palatable run time. If you head over to any review-based forum, particularly one like rateyourmusic, you're likely to find amongst the reviews, several listeners complaining that Natural Snow Buildings "are just too long" or that "they should have cut the last hour or so." If you're not familiar with this project, it's probably worth mentioning that with the exception of a couple of their more recent projects such as Terror's Horns
, nearly all of their records exceed the 80 minute mark, and quite a few of them take up two or more cassettes or CD-rs.
Yet even amongst the catalogue of a duo notorious for producing "albums that are too long", 2009's Daughter of Darkness
is a monolith. The original 5-casette release (the version which this review will centre on and my personal recommendation) clocks in at a little over six hours, around half of the songs push the 30 minute mark and three of them break 40, engulfing what tends to be the gold-standard runtime for an LP with a single track. It is very much worth mentioning that Daughter of Darkness
came on the heels of what was a massively productive 2008 for the duo, having put out eight LPs including the triple album The Snowbringer Cult
, two EPs and enough additional material to cover a pair of compilations. In this respect, Daughter of Darkness
is therefore all the more audacious, likewise ambitious.
Natural Snow Buildings have developed and honed a distinct style throughout their tenure. The NSB sound's core is an artic river, ice floes of jangling free-folk and percussive ritualistic raga-esque meditations around particular droned tonal points (often C or D) are buffeted and swept, often almost swallowed by varying layers of feedbacking bowed guitars (along with other accompanying plucked string instruments), and accentuated by Solange's floating soprano or Mehdi's circling responses. The music susurrates and groans while wiccans circumabulate fiercely glowing fires in winter-blighted woods within your fantasia. These immense, sprawling drones of hinterland psychedelia are often interspersed with much less cyclopean moments of brevity, in the form of more gentle lo-fi singer-songwriter tunes. Daughter of Darkness
eschews these more intimate moments for the most part, instead it serves as the culmination of the more enveloping drones. While the album is a natural conclusion for the style the duo have developed and the album contains some of the best that drone and avant-folk has to offer, the results are a little more complicated than it would seem at face value.
As with any experience so Odyssean in scale (to paraphrase StrangerofSorts's soundoff), the journey is wrought with strife and in places the task can seem insurmountable. This cannot be summed up any clearer than by simply hearing the opener for yourself. Intriguingly, "Daughters of Darkness" initially will not strike the listener as much of an introduction, as the title track has an air about it which is very much conclusive. In fact the majority of NSB's drones have always struck my ear as sounding like the aftermath of an earlier musical climax, an effect that I find very apparent on this album. At no point has this climax occured, nor at any point further into the album's six hour runtime does it, and this is what makes Daughter of Darkness
a genuinely unnerving experience in places: you have absolutely no idea how long you've been there or how much longer you have to keep going. The track fades in with a mournful melody, which is very, very gradually shadowed by peaking feedback. The melody eventually retreats, and once it is certain the feedback no longer follows it, it creeps back in, only to be accompanied by this eldritch flanger effect that colours it with an even more opaque sense of dread.
The understatedness of the opener and its relative brevity, clocking in at just under a quarter of an hour, sets your journey off completely wrong-footed, likely on purpose, as the rest of the album is much less forgiving. Sure, the tracklisting is peppered with the odd moment of respite, particularly the serene "The Source", which shimmers like a sanctuous body of water, but these end up being psychopomps into long periods of seething drone. Daughter of Darkness
is not a passive drone record either, it's never just "there," its percussive elements and the accompaniment of the duo's vocals, particularly Solange's wordless responsory make it challenging not to engage with. Though it does indeed drone, there is nothing quiescent about the music, as through the happenstance of its improvisational character, songs gradually morph and mutate till you expect you've made it to the next stage of the album, only to find out you're still only 20 minutes into "A Thousand Demons Invocation."
For me the album's Nephilim, I'm thinking specifically of the triumvirate of 40 plus minute tracks, are its strongest. "Her Face Is Not Her Real Face" is one of the album's earliest highlights (I say early even though it's about an hour and a half in, the album is kinda like that) and much like the previously dissected opener, it also feels like the coda to a musical conclusion long since arrived at. The guitar strums a single chord in a gradually extending winding-down cadence, while it is accompanied in tandem by tremolo picked accompaniment and circling feedback just waiting for the listener to die of exhaustion. Solange's vocals are present in waves, they do not soar, they do not glide, they simply drift with the song and are eventually, torturously buried in the blizzard as the guitars grow louder and the feedback hungrier. Then, without the listener even realising it, the track has disembowled itself and it is now no louder than it was when it started out. Solange is now prominent in the mix again, and that strange warping guitar effect is once again lurking in the foreground and it's not the last time it will on the album either, periodically present like an omen, of what exactly it is never apparent. "The Invisibles" draws the album to its finale, a stomping ground for a majority of the primary sounds explored on the album: driving percussion, looping melodies, ritualistic chants and walls of shrieking feedback.
A topic which I personally feel doesn't receive its due discourse is the power of the song title in wordless music. Evocative enough nomenclature can conjure fantastic imagery in the listeners mind and for me (and it will be different for everyone) the best example on Daughter of Darkness
comes near the end of the album with "Devil's Fork." The longest song on the album, and quite probably my favourite, "Devil's Fork" is a sprawling vista of peace, an oasis of jangling tremolo and swelling chords which embraces the listener comfortingly on the back of four and half hours of musical endurance. In my head, the Devil's Fork is some kind of clearing in a mountain valley where the path splits in twine, after battling your way to this part of your journey, it's an unbelievable spoil to actually have a choice. Unfortunately you eventually discover that you're wrong, as the developing drone begins to gradually add in wrong notes, builds feedback and sees the reappearance of the ethereal guitar effect, interrupting the tranquil and instilling once more the sense that something is breathing down your neck. Alternatively, the Devil's Fork could also some goetic enchanted cutlery, and I've always liked how the simple act of adding a nebulously cosmic possessive noun such as "Devil's" to an otherwise entirely ordinary object such as "Fork" creates this aura of power. (Author's note: it would appear my initial impression that the Devil's Fork is some kind of pastoral vista may have been right, as it seems to refer to various locations in the United States. Though in saying this, it likewise refers somewhat less commonly to Satan's pitchfork, and considering the title includes the apostrophe, this was probably the more likely intention).
If you've made it this far into the album in one sitting, then you've almost certainly had your patience tried on more than one occasion, which brings me to why Daughter of Darkness
bringing the NSB sound to its fully realised conclusion is not necessarily for the best. No matter how elevating sitting in awe for the duration of a track like "Her Face Is Not Her Real Face" can get, the same cannot be said for half an hour's worth of "A Thousand Demons Invocation." The relentlessly overdriven layers of feedbacking guitars, while an impressive amount of noise for two people to be making, is probably my least favourite method of attack which the duo undertake. This sound is palatable as a smaller segment of a track like "Slaves for the Afterlife", or as part of the exhilarating conclusion to "The Invisibles", but an entire track carved out of the trebly roar will have you prematurely reaching for the stop button. Hell, even some of the more pleasant moments on the album can have this effect, the crepuscular beauty of "Will You Die For Me?" doesn't quite hold the same reverent admiration in its listener after twenty minutes as "The Source" does for only five.
All of this, of course, is part of the experience. While the album is full of brilliance and some of the best drone and free-folk you're likely to hear, the sheer bulk of this thing and the manner of its composition means it's almost inevitable that there will be portions of it you will not enjoy. However, it is the recommendation of this review that on your first go round, you listen to the entire thing in one sitting. You never have to do this again, I myself haven't done the marathon since, even during the writing of this review, but the first time round it is a necessity. Otherwise, you really don't experience the scale of it, in fact the idea of this is implicit in the title itself. The film geek among you may well have noticed that the album shares its name with Harry Kümel's 1971 erotic vampire horror flick. More accurately, it is the title track that shares the name, as the album itself uses "daughter" in the singular, the implication of which I feel is that Daughter of Darkness
is one unit, not a collection of individual tracks. The intention is to hear how all of the songs, ghastly as stretches of the album might be, compliment each other in turn. To reiterate, you do not necessarily have to ever attempt this again, as the songs are more than substantial by themselves, but the experience all together is something else entirely.
In season three of David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks, there is a scene in which the audience is subjected to several excruciatingly tedious minutes of a whispery voiced French woman applying make up before leaving a hotel room, from which she had been asked to leave so that Miguel Ferrer's Albert Rosenfield may discuss FBI matters with Lynch's own Gordon Cole. The interaction of the two characters subsequent to this trial of the viewer's wits not to turn the f*cking thing off right then and there, is quite possibly the funniest moment in the entire series (and there is a similar scene in a casino elsewhere in the season). Though it still leaves you feeling as if you've had a chunk of your life stolen watching what was essentially an entire scene of nothing, the payoff achieves a kind of mental equilibrium, nothing lost and nothing gained. Daughter of Darkness
is much the same, though on a far greater scale and much like *insert completely unrelated Television show from the 90s here*, is something that just has to be experienced.