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Kali Malone, "The Sacrificial Code"

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cover imageI was recently very surprised to discover that Kali Malone is from Colorado, as she has been quite an uncannily ubiquitous and quietly influential presence in European experimental music circles over the last couple of years.  That role is especially remarkable given how her solo work increasingly sounds like it could have been composed a few hundred years ago (a direction largely rooted in a fateful meeting with an organ tuner).  This latest release is the culmination of Malone's recent passion for pipe organs, following in the wake of last year's brief yet excellent Organ Dirges 2016-2017 EP (Ascetic House).  The two releases are quite similar aesthetically, as Malone remains quite found of slow-moving and meditatively drone-like compositions, but The Sacrificial Code is simultaneously simpler and more ambitious than its concise predecessor.   In fact, this sprawling double album of organ works is an absolutely monolithic statement (and a fitfully mesmerizing one at that).  To my ears, it admittedly errs a bit on the side of overwhelming, but The Sacrificial Code is probably exactly the album that longtime fans were hoping Malone would someday release.

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Kali Malone's brief career has been quite an improbable and interesting series of bold decisions and chance meetings.  The most significant event, however, was her decision to move to Sweden as a teenager soon after meeting Ellen Arkbro at a show in NYC.  Once there, Malone was quickly won over by thriving artist communities like Fylkingen and resources like Stockholm's Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) and threw herself wholeheartedly into carving out her own role.  In fact, I knew about the label that Malone co-founded (XKatedral) months before I even knew anything about her own work.  Also of note: Malone was a classically trained vocalist and sometimes guitarist before switching hemispheres, but she has since become known primarily as a synth and organ composer (though her early tapes still feature some guitar).  In keeping with that inscrutable and enigmatic trajectory, her first album was composed for an unconventional string ensemble enhanced by gongs, sine waves, and tapes.  Consequently, it is fair to say that each new Kali Malone release is kind of a surprise, as she seems to be in a continual state of restless evolution and reinvention.  There is one notable constant though: Malone is extremely interested in unusual and precise tunings and that goes a long way towards explaining how she wound up making an album like The Sacrificial Code.  If she used an unusual tuning for this particular album, she kept it to herself, but she is an apprentice organ tuner who has employed Just Intonation in the past (and her 2016 collaboration with Caterina Barbieri & Ellen Arkbro was composed for guitars "united in the pythagorean and septimal region of the harmonic spectrum."  In short, Malone is an artist with a deep understanding of how frequencies interact.

When I listen to The Sacrificial Code casually, however, it sounds like a very straightforward (if anachronistic) album of simple organ hymns.  In fact, there is almost nothing on this release that would sound at all out of place at an organ mass at a normal Catholic church, which makes it a bizarrely backwards-looking and traditional album on its face.  It is hard to say how much of that elegiac and "religious" tone was intended and how much of it stems from the constraints of Malone's chosen instrument and the features that led her to choose it in the first place.  The song titles certainly suggest the former was a significant force, but Malone was more explicit in her intention to "flow against the grain of the prevailing musical hegemony." For one, she purposely close-mic’d the organ to eliminate natural reverb.  Also, she notes that the pieces were "compositionally stripped of gestural adornments and spontaneous expressive impulse" and that she was attempting to achieve "transcendence through self-restraint." 

That rigorously restrained and stripped-down approach is the big caveat with The Sacrificial Code, as many of Malone's compositions are too austere to make a strong impression melodically, though the intertwined and ascending themes of the title piece are quite lovely, as are some of the rich harmonies of “Litanic Cloth Wrung.”  Also, the album is padded out a bit with live versions of "The Sacrificial Code" and two pieces from Organ Dirges.  All of that suggests that Malone hubristically attempted to stretch a modest batch of good ideas across four full sides of vinyl (or three CDs), but my opinion changed dramatically when I listened to the album on headphones: The Sacrificial Code is essentially two very different albums masquerading as just one.  On an overt level, it is a likably meditative (if unremarkable) suite of minimalist organ hymns, but closer listening reveals a stealthily concealed noise/sound art album hiding amidst the sustained drones and overlapping harmonies.  The latter is what makes this album a fascinating achievement, as Malone cultivates a complex and vibrantly shifting feast of oscillations that puts her in roughly the same league as folks like Eliane Radigue and Catherine Christer Hennix.  While I now mostly view the melodies and chord progressions as a devious smoke screen that distracts from the real action in the details, I am quite struck by how seamlessly and ingeniously Malone was able to achieve two very different ends at once: she sneakily made a fine experimental music album, yet also made a bold conceptual statement about the value of simplicity and directness.

Viewed in that light, almost everything about The Sacrificial Code makes perfect sense and leads me to believe that Kali Malone might be some kind of visionary or genius (albeit one who is very prone to understatement and subtlety).  I still think the album is overlong, but the lesser pieces became considerably more compelling once I grasped that everything Malone played was likely chosen to feed the cloud of overtones and oscillations that remained in its wake.   The overall effect is akin to gazing at a pleasing painting, then looking at an X-ray of the same painting and being utterly dazzled by the depth and intricacy of a completely different image hiding behind the surface.  Needless to say, that is quite a cool trick and I cannot think of any other artist who has done it this skillfully.  As such, The Sacrificial Code occupies a curious place for me, as it is an imperfect album that is nevertheless a perfect and powerful statement of intent.  If I had never heard it, I would probably still be following Malone's career and occasionally enjoying an album or two, but this album is the one that finally awakened my ears to the frequency sorcery that is the true heart of her work.  I suppose that makes The Sacrificial Code a landmark album of sorts, as it is a high profile release that will likely draw in a lot of curious new listeners and it captures Malone at her most focused and aesthetically distinctive.  If those new listeners take the time to get attuned to Malone's frequency, they will not be disappointed: The Sacrificial Code is strong evidence that Kali Malone is one of the most promising and inventive composers of her generation.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 20 August 2019 06:53  


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