A collaboration between G. Stuart Dahlquist (formally of Burning Witch) and prolific French composer Philippe Petit is sure to elicit some dark, disturbing imagery, and on that front, Empires Should Burn definitely does not disappoint. With guest vocals from Edward Ka-Spel, Jarboe, and Bryan Lewis Saunders, the resulting album is a dark, though not impenetrable slab of metal hued experimental sound collage.
"Vocalists" is a designation used loosely in terms of this album, since all three artists' contributions are most closely aligned with spoken word performances, with each artist supplying their own texts. Ka-Spel's "And Empires Will Burn" is the most engaging in my opinion: comprising almost half of the disc's duration, the 23 minute performance melds clanging gamelan-like metal percussion and grimy noise textures that slowly creep along. The backing track makes slow, cautious changes throughout to keep variation, but not detract from the narration.
Ka-Spel's calm, dramatic delivery of his performance adds to the creepiness of both his words and the sound surrounding it. The two are in perfect harmony, where the words never overshadow the music nor vice versa. The narrative is absent for around the final third of the piece, where the sound takes the focus, increasing the amount of change and variation to be heard.
"The Star Implodes" pairs Jarboe's understated readings with clattering guitars and found sounds to excellent effect. Compared to many of the pieces on here, there is a greater sense of light and space to be heard, even if it is only hinted out. "A Vision"'s reading by Lewis Saunders has an intentionally stilted, uncomfortable cadence to his whispered voice that just heaps on the discomfort.
There are two instrumental pieces included as well, which meld in perfectly with the overall fell of the album. "Sweet Dreams Asshole" takes distant chiming bells and a creepy layer of noise, both of which could be cliché but instead come across quite effective in channeling a dark, sinister mood that is only exacerbated by Dahlquist's seemingly wordless snarls. "Apocryphatic_Ally" follows Jarboe's performance to close the album, and plunges it again into darkness with cautious restraint; electronic tinged noises abound but never lose a natural, uncomfortable organic feel.
I am usually not one fond of spoken word performances, as I feel too often they come across not only as pretentious, but also tend to overshadow any musical accompaniment they might have. On Empires Should Burn, they feel less like that traditional style, but more like a collection of ghost stories with sonic accompaniment. The fact that both the words and music are captivating is no easy task, and I can’t think of any time it worked so well other than Velvet Underground's "The Gift" or Wire's "The Other Window."
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