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Distant Animals, "Lines"

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Over the last several years, Hallow Ground’s eclectic curatorial instincts have hit the mark so frequently that I am now deeply curious about anything they release from any artist completely unknown to me.  While I do quite not love everything they release, they have unearthed quite a few lost post-industrial gems and are often far ahead of the curve with promising new artists or projects.  This project from Daniel Alexander Hignell very much falls into the latter category, wielding the conceptual complexity of a less mischievously arch Hafler Trio to craft a seismic drone opus that falls in roughly the same league as greats like Eliane Radigue and Phill Niblock.  The album's second half is admittedly a bit less revelatory, but it does not matter because the opening piece is such an absolute monster.

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According to Discogs, this is arguably Distant Animals' debut, but that is somewhat deceptive, as Hignell has been releasing albums under his own name and running the Distant Animals (in a Forest of Signs) imprint for the last several years.  Both perversely and appropriately, he completed a doctorate in composition in 2017 and Lines is the first "sonic response" to the research he did on the social function of art-making.  That academic background definitely figures heavily into Lines' conceptual underpinning, as it is based on a 130-page text score and includes four postcards documenting a "land-art intervention" related to the text, as well as a print from Layla Tully that "responds to the album's central theme - materiality, substance, emergence, and the process of 'line-making.'"  In my experience, album descriptions in that vein generally do not bode well, but there are occasionally some wonderful exceptions like this one.  Much like a Merzbow album about, say, bears sounds a hell of a lot like a Merzbow album about eucalyptus trees to any casual listener, those themes are not particularly evident in the actual music.  Rather, they just provided the necessary inspiration for Hignell to get to an intriguing place creatively.  It is an amusing bit of irony that it took all that research and a doctorate in composition to get to what is essentially a one-note piece (the aptly titled "Pure Drone"), but it also makes complete sense, as the piece is a master class in patience, control, dynamics, and deliciously blackened textures.

"Pure Drone" begins in appropriately simple and pure fashion, as a sustained modular synth tone gently throbs and slowly sweeps.  Gradually, however, a cloud of eerie overtones starts to cohere in the periphery, while the drone itself builds into an increasingly shuddering, scorched, and infernal-sounding behemoth.  The sheer density and menace of the piece is truly remarkable, as it feels like a slow-motion earthquake is tearing open a portal to hell and that portal is then channeling some kind of demonic version of Tuvan throat singing.  In a perfect world, "Pure Drone" would just keep amassing elemental power until my house collapsed around me and the falling roof squashed my stereo, but Hignall sadly lacks the supernatural powers necessary to pull that off, so the piece instead just gradually fades away after about 20 minutes.  That presents a bit of problem for Lines, as very little could possibly follow "Pure Drone" and not seem comparatively anticlimactic.  Nevertheless, Hignall gamely tries to do the impossible with "Lines Made By Walking," which roughly heads in the opposite direction of its predecessor.  Whereas "Pure Drone" was all about focused power and crushing, all-enveloping forward motion, "Lines Made By Walking" starts as a heavy drone and immediately begins dissolving into a roiling morass of sputtering and blurting synth tones and crackling, shorting amp noise.  Eventually, it settles into a gently buzzing and beeping ambient reverie, but quickly disintegrates into static before reemerging for a visceral final act that sounds like a nightmarish black mass: deep, distorted bell-like tones mingle with gnarled howls that sound like a field recording of damned souls being played back on a dying record player.

As great as that sounds, however, it does not come close to approaching the majesty of "Pure Drone," as it feels bizarrely fragmented and scattershot, as if several disparate pieces were edited together with varying degrees of success.  In fact, the clangorous unpredictability resembles something that might turn up on an early electronic music comp, like a decent but dated Morton Subotnik piece.  That is certainly not bad company to be associated with, particularly when Hignell seems to share the same oversized passion for theory and experimentation that drove so many of the late 20th century's iconic composers.  Falling within that continuum is nice, but it is definitely a far greater achievement to build on that tradition in a way that feels like a fresh and exciting new chapter.  With "Pure Drone," Hignall nails the latter quite decisively.  He pulls a very big and improbable rabbit out of his hat with this album, emphatically demonstrating that hyper-minimalism delivered with earth-shaking intensity still has the power to surprise and delight a listener who has been consuming a steady diet of drone masterpieces for years.

Samples can be found here.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 December 2018 20:06  


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