This striking and aberrant effort originated when Mark found a forgotten four-track recording of a mangled pop song that he had made back in 1982 and decided to revert back to those more primitive recording methods. While these songs borrow their directness and uncharacteristically raw sound from that teenaged experiment, the resultant album is still a very dense and perversely sophisticated one. Also, it could not possibly be further from the shimmering and sublime work Mark did with Seefeel. Instead, The Revenant Diary sounds like '90s dance pop filtered through an especially gritty, vibrant, and disturbing nightmare.
I am not sure quite what I expected from this album, but I was very quickly wrong-footed as soon as the beat came in on the opening piece ("Look Into My Eyes"). It sounds like some kind of anachronistic and baffling industrial-damaged take on new jack swing that has no business at all popping up on an album in 2012. Once I got past my initial disbelief at Van Hoen's willful use of dated beats, however, I became mesmerized by what a uniquely weird, hallucinatory, and heavy piece it actually was as spectral soul diva vocals and dissonant, vaguely sinister strings swelled and drifting around the insistently lumbering beat. That uneasy collision of seemingly disparate threads turned out to be one of the primary themes of album, as several other tracks ("Don't Look Back" and "Remember," for example) sound like Mark jacked some beats from his favorite Portishead album and fed them into a machine that makes everything sound paranoid and phantasmagoric. Given the album's title, that makes perfect sense: a revenant is something dead that returns to terrorize the living.
It's an aesthetic that absolutely should not work, but it is executed and produced so beautifully that turns out to be unexpectedly amazing: the slow-motion beats and deep bass lines have a bludgeoning physicality, the chord progressions are ominous and unsettling, and the repurposed female vocals make it all seem fragile, forlorn, and disorienting. In fact, the presence of the pop touches makes everything seem infinitely more wrong and brilliantly deviant than it possibly could have sounded otherwise. It's like being at a party where everyone is deeply lonely and enveloped in existential horror, but the DJ continues to spin big, sexy beats out of sheer malevolence.
The album occasionally diverges from that admittedly awesome path though, as Mark has a few other tricks up his sleeve. "No Distance," for example, delves into twinkling sequencer-heavy ambiance. It's a decent piece, but it is disappointingly non-distinctive. Some of the other digressions are much more interesting though. "Why Hide From Me?" has similarly ambient leanings, but enhances them with a fragile, warbling guitar lead that sounds like it is being played back on either a badly decayed tape or a dying tape player. Then the album's closer (and arguable centerpiece) "Holy Me" dispenses with musical accompaniment altogether and simply unfolds a ten-minute-long choral reverie of creepily digitized female voices. I've heard similarly otherworldly passages on albums by Brock van Wey and Peter Christopherson's Threshold Houseboys Choir project, but they never fail to get to me and this is easily the longest sustained foray that I have heard. It sounds simultaneously ecstatic and alien.
The albums's sole flaw is simply that it is overwhelming. Mark offers very few moments of respite from his insular, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable world. He clearly didn't set out to entertain anyone or write some killer singles, but he succeeded admirably in creating great and challenging art. There are some odd and temporally dislocated aesthetic decisions and he perhaps included a few more songs than were necessary or entirely welcome, yet there is no denying that he was truly inspired here. The Revenant Diary's best moments are singularly warped and almost visionary: Van Hoen took soul and rhythm and alchemically détourned them into tools for disseminating isolation and despair. That is exactly the sort of endeavor I can get behind.