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Iroha: Iroha

img  Tobias Fischer

Even two decades into his career, Andy Swan is still a dreamer. On the debut album of his new project, Iroha, Swan hasn't given up on the healing qualities of the arts, using sound to deal with his demons and explore the same realms of the unconscious as those inhabited by the sleeper: Desolate planes of scattered memories, frozen fragments of shattered hopes, endless fields of suppressed desires, pent-up frustrations and fading snapshots of better days. Music is an emotional testing ground here, an opportunity to subject both himself and his audience to sensations considered unpleasant or outright dangerous in real life - the pang of heartbreak, the pain of letting go, the inevitability of change, decay and death – and to live through them together. As much as it has already been filed away into the shoegazer-drawer and despite its at times somber and pensive moods, there is nothing depressive or dark about the band's debut album. Rather, Iroha delineates an emotional state perhaps best described by the term „bittersweet“. It is about the beauty that lies in sadness, about the sweetness of the past, about „every day being like the last“ and the strange allure of the things we well know we can never get. And it is about the short moments, when our daily routines are ruptured by sudden flashbacks into habits we long thought to have left behind.

The surreal qualities of this otherwordly landscape all but call for experiments in terms of form. Accordingly, the first of the two discs of the release contains Swan's mixes, while the second comprises the entire album as seen through the lens of Justin Broadrick, his former partner in influential electronica-outfit Final, which disbanded for a variety of reasons in the late 80s, before being resurrected as a Broadrick-solo-project in the mid 00's. Despite going their different ways for almost twenty years now, the two have remained in touch and aside from some more or less obvious third-party-associations – Swan has named early New Order as a reference, while the iconic, stoical and mantra-like trod of these nocturnal anthems at times recalls the melancholic grandeur of The Cure's coming-of-age-epic Disintegration – Broadrick's Jesu-moniker makes for the most apparent parallel. Importantly, however, these different mixes are not radically contrasting productions, but discretely different decisions on the dynamics, feel and sound of the album. In general, in keeping with his penchant for a certain pop-factor, Swan tends to focus on the melodic aspects of his pieces, on the fundamental framework of the song and on the intelligibility of the lyrics, while Broadrick's vision is of a more raw and dirty kind, a twisted perspective on otherwise perfectly quotidian emotions. In both cases, however, heartrendingly simple songs blend with the emotional ambivalence and the complex thrust of distortion, with some of the catchy hooks tucked away underneath mighty walls of fuzz and Swan screaming for his right to be heard.

With other acts and different albums, the inclusion of both mixes might have pointed at an inability of arriving at artistic decisions or, with regards to the subtle nuances of the two versions, seemed a little pedantic. Here, however, they truly represent incisive variations of the work and point to where the musical substance of the album is really to be found: In its textures, timbres and overall sound, in the close interaction, interlocking and inseparable connection between its different elements – the cathartic crunch of the slow, dirge-like riffs, the doomy yet undeniably propulsive and fulminantly powerful punch of the drums, the fluorescent glow of  cathedral keyboard pads and the irresistible pull of spiky little melodies, which seem almost trivial at first, but develop a fishhook-like poignancy through insistent repetitions. There are short moments, where the guitar will add an ornamentation or where a percussion roll will break the even flow of the metrum. But other than that, there are neither solos nor egos here, the individual qualities of the musicians merging into a tightly interlocking machinery rolling forward with unstoppable momentum. In combination with the vulnerability and fragility on display, Iroha fervently negate everything one has come to expect from rock music: Testosteron, machismo, egos on overdrive and the cult of the cliché.

It is an aesthetic which feeds on minimalism and a philosophy of saying what needs to be said with as few words as possible. Folk singer Beth Orton once paid tribute to the spiritual qualities of music, claiming that „some of the worst songs get righted on three chords“. On Iroha, a mere two often seem perfectly enough. It is not the grandeur of the arrangements, their monolithic and majestic pathos that count, but rather the sparsity and ultimate concentration on what's essential. Just like the Japanese poetry denoted by the band's name and album title, these pieces are about locking the listener into a single train of thought or a particular emotional state, about pulling him into the dense space of the music and then burning all bridges, locking all doors and throwing away the key. Tracks like opener „Last Day of Summer“ or the album's romantic centerpiece „Watercolours“ emphasis this feeling by veering between the two same triads for their entire duration, by literally spanning up a space framed between a minor and a major pole and then filling in the empty galaxy gaping between the two. All of them, however, consist of harmonic progressions repeated ad infinitum, musical ideas set into stone with a titanium chisel, sonic monuments erected both as an effort at braving the march of time and of documenting its merciless cruelty.

Some may find it strange that an artist should still be singing heartbreak anthems two decades into his career. And it's true: Not many can get away with naming their songs „Dreams“ or „Autumn Leaves“ without sounding corny. But just like a sleeper trapped in a bewildering nightmare, Andy Swan is following the logic of dreams: There is no free will here, he doesn't have a choice.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Iroha
Homepage: Denovali Records

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