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Neil Young: Arc; Fear Falls Burning: Woes, Rainbow, Final & FFB; The Black Fire: Anthems

img  Tobias Fischer

In 1991, being a Neil Young fan finally became unbearable to many. Already Weld, an unvarnished account of Young's North American tour with Crazy Horse, had proven a serious test of stamina even for those who had still, albeit grudgingly, accompanied him on his „unrepresentative of himself“ trips through vocoder-land (Trans) or bizarre patriotic outbursts (Hawks and Doves). It was the limited edition of the album, initially pressed in a run of 25.000 copies, however, which contained the real point of contention: A third disc featuring a single, thirty-five minute composition, which would quickly come to be regarded as his most divisive piece of music ever. Rather than a representative cut from one of the concerts, Arc constituted an experimental studio-collage culled from various stage-appearances. And instead of highlighting Young's knack for touching melodic simplicity or the adrenalin-kick of his straight-forward rock-gestures, it featured as main thematic material elements regarded by most as mere waste: Feedback, fuzz, amplifier hum, distortion and moments of collective mayhem.

And yet, as so often with Young, his most controversial contributions would eventually prove to be among his most valuable. Arc was always too obviously anything but a pot-shot-piece of meaningless sonic frustration, if only for the fact that it had quite clearly been minutely structured and meticulously planned. A crunching and mantrically repeated d-major-chord made carefully timed, leitmotivic appearances, as did mysterious vocal lines and the torso of „Like a Hurricane“, enigmatically rising from the smouldering din like the mast of a ghost ship caught in a tornado. Inspired by a new generation of bands such as his then-support-act Sonic Youth, to whom the emancipation of noise simply seemed the next logical step in the evolution and historical dialectics of music, Young - and this safeguarded Arc from misplaced comparisons to Lou Reed's equally reviled Metal Machine Music - was trying to save Rock from the complacency, institutionalisation and boredom which had infested it like a cancer. And the anger vented at him in many ways only paralleled the consternation expressed by Viennese conservatives upon hearing Schönberg's first steps into atonality.

It is hard not to spot the similarities in approach – although not so much in actual sound or composition – between Arc's relentless insistence on pure substance over trivial surface and the monolithic intensity of Fear Falls Burning. In fact, it seems bewildering that Dirk Serries's project has, undoubtedly for technical rather than musical reasons, almost monothematically been likened to the one-man-drone-building of Robert Fripp or the physical wave-modelling of Metal-extremists SUNN O))). Serries has never made a secret of the major influence the Crazy-Horse-aesthetic has had on the development of his own style, after all: Just as with Young, Fear Falls Burning tracks often begin, where the traditional song format ends. They are fascinated with what others are repelled by. They favour risk over safety, adventure over certainty, blur over precision, the thrill of never being sure about where the next step will take you over the superficial satisfaction of always knowing exactly what you'll get. They treat sound and composition as equals and are fundamentally built on elements usually considered mere adornments. Rather than presenting himself as the man with the plan, Serries resembles the captain of the aforementioned ghost ship, navigating through a self-created storm of loops, ferocious walls of sound and floating harmonics. His path delineates the line between the rational and the subconscious, leading, at its most successful moments, to a point where excitement can no longer be traced to passed-down perceptional models, but to instinct alone. Even though his music is grounded in catchy riffs, motivic spikes and harmonic resonance, their combined thrust transcends their traditional associations: Rather than digging for familiar forms underneath the surface of noise, Serries is embracing its complexity, its alien-ness, the promise of the terra incognita opening up in front of him.

All of this, however, was not quite that apparent on Woes of the Desolate Mourner and The Rainbow Mirrors a Burning Heart, which have recently been re-released as high-quality digipack-CDs on tonefloat. Instead, both lean more towards immersive soundscaping rather than spiritual noise shaping and display a tendency for refinement and gradual changes which a work like Arc wilfully lacks. On both, madness and excess are merely hinted at, rather than overtly coming to the fore. Woes, thanks to live bonus track „litany in a time of plague“ particularly, deserves a serious re-evaluation as one of Serries's most skillful drone-building exercises after being somewhat neglected at the time thanks to originally only being published as a 6-minute shorter 7inch-edit.

At the point of their original release, Fear Falls Burning had already celebrated its first year of existence and the more pastoral and immediate processes of the first few works had given way to a grim determination and a highly physical technique of drone forging, with Serries literally bending, twisting and leaning into his wall of sound during his stage appearances. The loop-character of the music was becoming increasingly opaque, with cycles being intricately interwoven with each other and pieces following less and less linear paths - this is highly refined music and as remote from the ragged glory of the Crazy Horse cosmos as they are from the broken harvest of Fear Falls Burning classics like The Amplifier Drone. And yet, on reinspection, Rainbow turns out to be one of the most outspoken harbingers of what was about to come. While its first part comprised of a long, continuous drone, the second movement saw a ferocious riff mercilessly eating its way through a pulsating halo of overtones. As dreamy as this music was in its most blissed-out moments, it always retained its threat, its potential of lashing out against its audience in an unpredictable explosion of aural violence.

After these more atmospheric early solo works, the course of the project changed somewhat and there are a lot of explanations why collaborations represented an essential factor in the Fear Falls Burning discography from then on. While Serries himself has convincingly contested that they have allowed him to expand his vision beyond its original, puristic propositions, one may also suspect that he was looking for creative partners to assist him in his quest of finding reliable points of the compass on an as-yet uncharted map. One must never forget that the very first full-lengths in the Fear Falls Burning catalogue were probably his most resolute and uncompromising endeavours to date, far surpassing Arc in terms of its explorative radicalism. While Young still enjoyed the backing of his entire band, He Spoke in Dead Tongues, for example, was a threateningly sparse double-album constructed entirely with the FFB-trademark Epiphone Les Paul Standard in relation to a couple of effect pedals. Follow-up The Infinite Sea of Sustain even managed to stretch the message to a full four and a half hours of music culled from five integral concert recordings. Serries found himself as remote from vidnaObmana as he could ever have imagined when exchanging that project's intricacy for the spiritual transcendentalism of his new moniker. He had turned into a lonely wanderer in a land of seemingly unrestricted potential.

This is also why many of the early co-operations have served to stylistically enrich (and thus ground) the project, a tendency which became most transparent on the imposing 5LP-set Once We All Walk Through Solid Objects, where the results extended organically into Folk and Micronoise and culminated in the razorsharp Metal- and Industrial-references of 2008's Frenzy of the Absolute. Discounting the telepathic handshake with Flutist Theo Travis on The Tonefloat Sessions (which would come to be regarded as leading up to the founding of the microphonics-moniker), there was, however, one collaboration which went completely against the grain and which would, in retrospective, come to offer a highly promising approach: Serries's encounter with Campbell Kneale's Birchville Cat Motel. Sinister to the point of sounding occult, smudgy and unpolished but also majestic and beguiling, the album hypnotically meandered through the blood-smeared appendix of Drones, Rock and Ambient, opening the synaptic floodgates and showering the brain with serotonin. Because it offered answers to the burning question of where-to-next without watering down the original Fear Falls Burning philosophy, it importantly allowed for a second line of releases to manifest itself. While Fear Falls Burning previously used to be split down the middle into a dreamy ambient strand on the one hand and a more edgy and raw series of releases on the other, the current demarcation line runs between an increasingly open approach said to incorporate anything from jazz-inflected drumming to vocals on the upcoming full-length and a more minimal, subdued and stripped-down take on the genre.

The reason why working with the likes of Justin K. Broadrick and Robert MacManus has turned out such a focused affair, at least partially relies on the fact that these uniquely prolific and inventive musicians, too, are constantly striving for a balance between staying true to a musical idea and a constant hunger for diversification and exploration. Broadrick's ventures into Grind Core, Industrial Metal and Techno have become the stuff of music history, but MacManus, whose career encompasses anything from the Noise-sculptures of Grey Daturas and Drumming-assignments with French Funeral-Doom-band Monarch to utterly unconventional improvisation-based psychedelics, can certainly lay claim to an equally impressive eclecticism. Rather than goading each other on to ever-more expansive horizons, both Anthems (Serries's duo album with MacManus as „The Black Fire“) as well as Final & Fear Falls Burning now mark remarkably concentrated searches for essence and see their protagonists finding freedom in restraint, exultation in focus and liberation in simply doing what they do best.

In the case of The Black Fire, this means reveling in the revelatory depths of sustain. Anthems contains three tracks of rich, sonorous and cosmic soundscapes in which the contributions of Serries and MacManus are anything but trivial to keep apart, their lines merging into dense sheets of undulating resonance. One of the most minimalistic exercises in Serries' entire oeuvre, these pieces are all but static on the surface, seemingly confining themselves to a tidal process of expansion and deflation, with merely the occasional appearance of choral textures adding different colours to fluffy clouds of tonal smoke.

The real action is taking place underneath their tissue, in the microscopic yet intriguing manipulations the constituents are subjected to. The closer one zooms in, in fact, the more the record is revealing itself as one of the most obviously guitaristic efforts of Fear Falls Burning: You can literally hear the plucking and tearing of the strings as fingers are moving across the fretboard. Contrary to many albums which tend to obliterate the process of their creation, Anthems lays it bare, hiding nothing and creating the same kind of spontaneous ambiance which has come to define Serries's live-performances. By, on the one hand, putting the personal interaction between its creators up front and, on the other, contrasting it with the galactic feeling of Krautrock, the result is equally tender and incisive and of an intriguing intimacy and spaciousness.

If guitars played a subcutaneous role on Anthems, they are very much tantamount to Serries's long overdue encounter with Justin Broadrick. An ostensible Metal-riff opens the first of four untitled tracks, while the third sports almost folkish, texicana-style pickings - a classic and instantly attributable guitar sound is the driving force behind the album. Even though ominously stretched tones are building up in the background, they never wash over the more melodic development taking place at the same time. Broadrick and Serries are engaging interactively, responding to each hook with a powerful counterpoint or adding a melody where the other left a hole in the texture of chopped-up loops. There is an intuitive and fluent musicality to their exchange, in which the linearity of looping is constantly broken by unexpected twists – such as when, on „three“, a two-note theme suddenly peels itself off the track's texture, as though it had been there all the time, patiently waiting for the right time to expose itself.

In instances like this, the music attains a kind of supernatural reality: Never resting, never relaxing, never fully resolving, the constant adrenalin-surge turns into a mantra, straddling the line between the new and the familiar and between unorganised noise and the refreshingly unconventional. In no way are these excursions into the unknown bound by trivial copies of Neil Young's legacy. But they do profit from the pioneering effort contributed by him. By allowing noise into the holy halls of Rock twenty years ago, Arc has profoundly changed our way of hearing – and made us more perceptive of the bewildering beauty that lies beyond the borders of perception. Young may have lost a couple of fans in 1991, but the ones he won over would end up redefining the limits of Rock music.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Neil Young
Homepage: Dirk Serries / Microphonics
Homepage: Fear Falls Burning
Homepage: Robert MacManus
Homepage: Justin K Broadrick
Homepage: Reprise Records
Homepage: Tonefloat Records
Homepage: Heathen Skulls
Homepage: Conspiracy Records

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