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LP Feature/ The Use of Ashes: "White Nights: The Hand of Tzafkiël" & "The Mousehill Daydream"

img  Tobias

It may be better to burn out than to fade away but some bands have built an impressive body of music by simmering slowly for decades. The brainchild of former Mekanik Kommando Bassist Peter van Vliet, the use of ashes have headlined sizeable festivals in their native Holland and established themselves as a continuous creative force on the Dutch underground. And yet, the mysterious aura of promise surrounding them has always been bigger than their actual popularity. As the formation celebrates their 20th anniversary this year, the discrepancy between the hallucinatory quality of their music and their humble public profile has hardly become less lamentable.

With all likelihood, van Vliet was just a little too late all the time. When EMI rejected their third album and Mekanik Kommando unraveled at the end of the 1980s, the debut release by his new group must have seemed like an alien artifact. At a time when Techno was exploding and Grunge was winning over the pubescent masses, the use of ashes harked back to the psychedelic tradition, stopping clock hands from ticking and entering delirious zones of altered consciousness. The band wanted to whispervoicedly tell imaginative stories out of time and space, while everyone else was screaming and hollering. No wonder the world wouldn't – or couldn't – listen.

In 2004, the use of ashes returned from a lengthy hiatus with freshly found zest, heralding both a new chapter and an Indian Summer in their career. Full-length „Ice 67“ was received with enthusiasm, as was a surprising single with dance remixes. „White Nights – the hand of Tzafkiel“ now comes as a sort of summary of all the project stands for as well as an exciting outlook into a future which looks brighter than ever – even if the music sounds ominously dark. As on previous endeavours, van Vliet is accompanied by Maarten Scherrenburg on acoustic Guitar and Vocals, with his brother Simon adding seriously threatening tape loops and surreally twisted Synth sounds.

Doubling some parts and combining them with the timbres of Psalters, Zithers, and a Bassbow, the trio creates a fairy-tale like labyrinth of hazy, scenic songs and intangible instrumental drift, a cosmos built on the premise of an unspoken prophecy which will only be fulfilled in the listener's head after the record has ended. „The hand of Tzafkiel“ stitches a quilt made of fantastical fabric, including angelic harmonics and bestial murmurs, rhythmless washes of slowly rotating elliptic Ambient loops, Mellotron choirs and (on rare occasions) erotic grooves. It is only van Vliet's warm and comforting voice as well as his ability to create a fluent tension arch from short, snippeted fragments, which binds this both pastoral and utopian patchwork firmly together.

There seems to be a concept behind the lyrics as well, even though its details remain opaque. Vocals in English, German and (possibly) a self-invented language deal with real and imaginary places, where pleasure and pain, dreams and our physical reality are treated as one and the same thing. Track titles like „7th night a black spider“ reference previous work of the band, allowing for the idea that the album could be intended as a magnum opus bringing the many different episodes and eras of the use of ashes to a consoling close. It is this fragile balance between baring everything and blurring all that makes the record so appealing and allows for a plethora of different approaches and interpretations depending on your personal disposition and past. Peter van Vliet has been quoted as saying that "the best albums are the ones that create a unique story for every listener. It's my hope to make such an album one time." It looks like he just has.

The multilayered sound of the use of ashes' regular studio albums is prismically broken by various side projects, which have included collaborations and remixes over the past years and often strayed into the corner of heavenly Drone music and empathetic Sound Art. Some of these releases have not only been even more experimental in nature, but often resulted in works which hardly contain any recognizable traces of the original band sound any more. „The Mousehill Daydream“, too, erects an entirely unique cosmos, which owes more to the progressive instrumental music of the 70s than to the filigree song fantasies van Vliet has become known for.

And yet, both share a penchant for threedimensional sound architecture and epic movements. „The Mousehill Daydream“ comprises of two 16-minute compositions with a lot of dreamlike development and dense structures. A-Side „The Mousehill Lakeside“ is about long goodbyes, opening with a sensual, repeated bass motive and delicate overtone-melodies, then fraying out into shifting clouds of Drone. Flipside „The Mousehill Townside“, meanwhile, with its gradually amassing, positively flippant Hurdy Gurdy dance metrics, is all about marching forward unstoppably towards a nameless goal in the future.

With its bagpipe associations, this latter piece could easily have turned out cheesy to say the least, but van Vliet always remains in control, spicing things up with downtuned riffs at the end and releasing the tension with utmost care. But then again, keeping things simmering for a while has always been his specialty.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: The Use of Ashes
Homepage: The Use of Ashes at MySpace
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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