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Jan St. Werner, "Molocular Meditation"

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cover imageI cannot say that I love every one of Jan St. Werner's bizarre solo albums, but his unwavering passion for pure experimentation and escalating unfamiliarity is certainly admirable and endearing.  On this latest release, however, he takes a break from his extremely outré Fiepblatter Catalogue project to celebrate the incomparable ramblings of his former Von Südenfed bandmate: the late Mark E. Smith.  The heart of the album is an edit of a "bespoke light and sound environment" that first premiered in Manchester back in 2014, while the remainder is (for the most part) fleshed out with some orphaned, Smith-centric work that was composed for other reasons.  Unsurprisingly, it is Smith's near-constant presence as a cranky, surrealist raconteur that provides most of Molocular Meditation's charm, but St. Werner's noisy, blurting and scattershot electronics do a effective job of creating a disorienting "sci-fi dystopia" backdrop for those musings.  At its best, Molocular Meditation feels like Smith's voice erupting through the noisy squall of a bank of malfunctioning computers, but the album has a whole is a prickly, challenging, and elusive affair (which, I suppose, is exactly what I expect from St. Werner at this stage in his career).

Editions Mego

It would be misleading to describe the opening "Molocular Meditation" as "noise," but it would probably be even more misleading to describe it as anything resembling music in the conventional sense.  Instead, it would be more apt to characterize it is a mechanized and lysergic maelstrom or like a complex public address system prone to frequent disruptions and malfunctions.   In more practical terms, it feels like several disparate motifs were loosely stitched together and mingled with improvisational flourishes that embellish Smith's playfully hammy and disjointed pronouncements.  The overall effect is quite an unusual one, as the piece repeatedly seems like it is poised to cohere into a structured melodic or rhythmic framework only to collapse again or get blasted with a torrent of harsh static.  Throughout it all, it is difficult to tell exactly what St. Werner is attempting to do or whether or not he is succeeding, as the blurting, unpredictable electronics often feel more like an intrusion than an enhancement: the piece sounds just fine when Smith's voice is accompanied by only a quiet hum or no sound at all. 

Naturally, Smith's own contributions are frequently entertaining and endearingly wrong-footing, as he unpredictably bounces between welcoming me to the installation, providing meticulously detailed breakdowns of his availability on Thursdays, and making cryptic pronouncements like "the disclaimer is always the first martyr" or "the word 'fantastic' is obscene."  As a result, I cannot help but imagine a more effective piece in which St. Werner just stuck to expanding upon one of his more promising themes and devoted the rest of his efforts to layering and processing Smith's vocals.   That said, this album was not the context that "Molocular Meditation" was created for, so maybe the piece's erratic, shifting nature was perfect for its original "light and sound environment."  In any case, it is a deeply bizarre and difficult-to-grasp piece, but it does contain some weirdly beautiful and poetic moments.

The album's second half consists of two short pieces that feature Smith and one longer one (“On The Infinite Of Universe And Worlds”) that does not.  All are considerably more linear and conventionally structured than the title piece, but it would still be a stretch to describe them as proper songs.  That said, I suppose "Back to Animals" has at least a distant kinship to Von Südenfed, as Smith delivers a monologue over a dense and semi-consistent rhythmic pulse featuring some spectral hints of a melodic hook and a chord progression.  However, it also shares a good amount of the title piece's unpredictability and precariousness, as the skittering, clattering rhythm always seems like it is about to derail.  Von Südenfed is more explicitly referenced with the closing "VS Cancelled," which is essentially just a morbidly entertained Smith reading an email from Domino about their decision to drop that project (albeit over a shifting bed of gurgling electronics and clanking metal).   The Smith-free "On The Infinite Of Universe And Worlds," on the other hand, is a fairly focused and substantial piece.  Clocking in around twelve minutes, it is curiously billed as an "electronic opera based on Giordano Bruno's Renaissance writings," though it lacks just about every characteristic that I normally associate with opera (singing, characters, plot, lengthy duration).  It certainly is a likable piece, however, as it is built upon a semi-linear and consistent foundation of skipping pulses that is gradually disrupted and pulled apart en route to a crescendo of a man shouting in Italian (presumably not Bruno himself, given the notorious lack of high-end recording equipment in sixteenth century Europe).

For the most part, I genuinely enjoy most of this album even if I cannot pretend to understand what St. Werner was thinking when he made it.  While I would not necessarily describe it as "a mixed bag," it is a weirdly fragmented release with a very hazy unifying aesthetic.  For example, the title piece would make some sense to me if this was an unusually experimental Mark E. Smith album that brought in St. Werner as a collaborator.  This is Jan St. Werner album though.  It also does not seem like there is any ambitious concept driving this album, nor does it seem like much of St. Werner's top shelf, cutting-edge material made it into these songs.  Again, that would sense if the music was intended as mere backdrop or frame for Smith’s entertaining monologues, but the music is loud and intense enough to compete for my focus.  Thankfully, that is not a fatal flaw, as Smith was such an amusing and iconic presence that even disjointed snatches of his voice punctuated by eruptions of noise are absorbing enough to carry an album.  Perhaps St. Werner intuitively understood that and decided to make Molocular Meditation interesting by mangling and disrupting something what could otherwise have been a predictable and straightforward delight.  Which, of course, feels like a weirdly apt decision for a Mark E. Smith tribute: anything less than the caustic, the messy, and the inscrutable would an affront to everything that Smith stood for.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Sunday, 01 March 2020 10:35  


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