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Bass Communion: Cenotaph

img  Tobias Fischer

Despite twenty-five years as a performer, Steven Wilson still has the reputation of being a reclusive and private person. And yet, few artists have opened themselves up to their audience as much as Wilson. Admittedly, his sharing of intimate details has not been of the kind that Hollywood-stars excel in, a shamelessness, which dishes up one's entire life on the plate of public consumption. Rather, through his lyrics and music, he has provided his followers with myriads of puzzle pieces, which, over the course of roughly forty studio albums under various guises, have combined into a lyrical cosmos of dizzying dimensions and an increasingly precise picture of his psychology. And yet, even some of his staunchest supporters have found his releases as Bass Communion hard to swallow, with many of them characterising them as little more than „random noise“. The antipathy may not just result from a low familiarity among many progrock-oriented listeners with the project's core genres of dark ambient, drones and dark sound art. Most of all, the instrumental nature of the music appears to confuse the clarity of Wilson's vocal works – amidst the hazy atmospherics, the carefully constructed portrait is fading away like the distant memory of a dream.

Cenotaph, already Wilson's ninth full-length as Bass Communion, is unlikely to sway the doubters. The mere fact that these four long-form pieces were first used as background music to the menu of the Grace-for-Drowning-DVD should be enough for many to define and discard this music as 'functional' and therefore inherently of little artistic value. Add to that the fact that Cenotaph again consciously embarks on a journey towards places characterised by Wilson as „uneasy“, „amorphous“ and „old“ and the album seems poised to provoke. What, after all, drives an artist who has written to-the-point albums of such spiritual depth as Insurgentes or intricately constructed multi-movement miniature-symphonies like „Anaesthetize“ to immerse himself in aural fields pierced by horns-of Jericho-like fanfares, electro-acoustic choir clusters, backwards-running answering-machine-from-hell messages and ghost melodies dancing on top of the burning embers of what once, in a long lost past, might have been a recognisable 'tune'? Dark ambient, for all of its flirtations with the occult and the inward, always had an air of escapism about it, an inbuilt admission that none of what one was hearing was to be treated as „real“. Cenotaph does not offer its audience this respite: Having passed from one world into another, there is no easy way back.

What this inherently means is that the album is by default more than the sum of its parts. Long swells, disfigured atmospheres and crackles, ominous drones and glacial rates of development – these are clear stylistic references and yet, Cenotaph hasn't turned into a genre album. Instead, it joins the illustrious ranks of a few select works that have come to define their own genre by taking the recognisable elements of a particular form far beyond their usual borders. GAS, Wolfgang Voigt's excursion into forrest-mythology, has been touted as a parallel, probably because of its similar concoction of slow, hypnosis-like rhythms and dense, otherworldly textures. Perhaps another comparison is even more to the point: Wilson has made little secret of the fact that one of the most inspiring records of 2011 was the massive Plastikman-Arkives-box and just like Richie Hawtin's classic Closer ripped apart the tightly-knit linear choreography of techno to reveal the gaping black holes and psychotic spaces lurking underneath, much of Cenotaph can be defined as bizarrely slowed-down acid, the movements of the dancers freezing as time retracts from the dancefloor. Low-end frequencies have been emphasised to the point of caricature – the first time I played this to a befriended DJ, he asked me to turn the subs down - a feat further emphasised by insistent and stoical bass drum pulses which feel far less like percussive metrums than the drowsy heartbeat of a tribal divinity. Every single note has to fight its way through a thick, rusty sheet of crackle, further strengthening the pervasive sensation of claustrophobia and surreality.

Not just because some of the microtonal frictions suggest an inclination towards contemporary composers like Ligeti, defining these pieces as soundscapes does not do them justice. For one, Cenotaph has been conceptualised as an integral, continuous journey, with even the field recordings underpinning each of them seemingly culled from a single sound file. What's more, all pieces are marked by tangible processes, which gradually reveal themselves and define both their beginning and end. The title track, for example, which may seem amorphous and directionless on a first listen, turns out to revolve around the coalescing of loose tonal strands into a shimmering major chord. And on Carrion, arguably the most accessible piece here thanks to its ghoulish trance-groove, Wilson first introduces a spooky theme on a phantom piano, only to take it through a phase of disintegration and death until, after a seven-minute period of absence, it unexpectedly returns for a subdued finale. Nothing is gained or resolved, and yet these processes lend a consoling framework to an album otherwise defined by the complete absence of conventional compositional techniques.

Too much may have been made of the fact that beats have entered the Bass-Communion-cosmos for the first time here – for the better part of the record's eighty minutes, they amount to little more than accentuated four to the floor poundings. And yet, different mixes of the same piece on the vinyl- and CD-edition of Cenotaph reveal the seminal importance of their inclusion. Within the alien territories of Bass Communion, the bass drum doesn't just resemble the insistent pulse of a shaman, whose very essence lies in consistency and immutability. It also represents the voice of humanity amidst an otherwise terrifying and horrific landscape. The sense disorientation that instantly takes hold the moment the music starts is akin to the sensation of being placed in a foreign environment. Without a compass and a map, only faint traces of rhythm are serving as a beacon, leading one forward, deeper and deeper into the unknown.

You'll need to leave your comfort zone to appreciate this music. If Bass Communion has blurred the precise image of Wilson, then this is because it is constantly changing: Discovery can only come through decampment and you can only renew yourself by leaving everything familiar behind.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Steven Wilson / Bass Communion
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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