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John Bence, "Archangels"

ArchangelsArchangels has an unhurried pace which I find deeply satisfying. John Bence shapes electronics, voice, piano, percussion and orchestration into dense and haunting forms, and although he creates some dynamic and challenging sounds, he never forgets that human ears need melodies and tunes. The spiritual concerns underpinning this creation also make it a good stepping off point to investigate and learn about a variety of concepts which have occupied people throughout human history.

Thrill Jockey

It is no accident that the album begins with a piece entitled "Psalm 34.4," a simple form of which states "I sought the Lord, and he heard me, And delivered me from all my fears." Quite what Bence is getting at here matters more for him than me, because my main concern is that Archangels is a genuinely intriguing and enjoyable album to listen to. Although given his victory over addiction, perhaps the album documents Bence's interest in his spiritual health, or even his gratitude for divine help. In an increasingly secular world, where such matters as diet, finances, physical fitness, and relationships blare incessantly for our attention, Archangels sounds like one man listening to himself and searching for faith.

Where Bence's search has led I am not going to surmise, and nor will I lay out the meaning behind each of the fascinating track names on this album. To give the gist, and hopefully a taste to explore more, let me first refer to "Metratron, Archangel of Kether," where we are plunged into shuddering dynamics and a brooding atmosphere of sacred mystery. This atmosphere then changes by blending a distant siren or children's voices or the squeaking wheel of a wooden cart, with an oddly disturbing marching beat. Metatron or "The Youth'' is the angel who led the people of Israel through the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Kether, meaning "crown," being the topmost of the sephirot of the Tree of Life in Kabbalah, lies between Chokhmah and Binah and it sits above Tifere. The definition of Kabbalah varies according to traditions and aims of followers, from its origin in medieval Judaism to its later adaptations in Western esotericism (Christian Kabbalah) and Hermetic Qabalah. Whether the composer is a follower of any or all of these traditions is unclear, but he definitely manages to compose music which does justice to his chosen topic; no easy task.

Throughout the album, Bence adeptly blends his chosen elements majestically and violently, and he uses dissonance and juxtaposition with enough restraint to give space for the music to convey awe, emotion, fear, and mystery. On "Gabriel, Archangel of Yesod," a female voice, appears to signal a joyous event with subtle yet richly ecstatic tones that are entirely appropriate—since Yesod means the foundation upon which God has built the world and Gabriel, herald of visions, is the Archangel who appeared to shepherds to alert them of the birth of Christ. The piano repetition intro to "Michael, Archangel of Hod" works superbly before being joined by sonorous male voices which bring a sense of comfort and peace. Both these tracks are superb but I would like them to have been several minutes longer. Not to focus on any one piece of music, but "Raphael, Archangel of Tiphareth" is quite stunning, with a densely shimmering electronic foundation upon which deeply resonant voices are laid. The moment when the voice cracks slightly is genuinely eerie.

I have read that Archangels was created out of a regime of daily prayer and meditation. Actually it said "ritual" not regime but I'm changing that because the word ritual gets on my nerves if it hints at anything occult. Apparently Bence relied somewhat on Damien Echols's book Angels and Archangels when composing a couple of these tracks, and his approach seems, shall we say, inclusive rather than selective or dismissive. Hopefully it stops short of embracing the occult, which in the minds of it's advocates and followers refers to supernatural beliefs and practices outside the scope of religion and science, I tend to think that nothing falls outside religion and science: be that otherworldly phenomena, magic, mysticism, extra-sensory perception, parapsychology, or whatever. Then again, my idea of a golden dawn involves being thankful for the new day, yogurt and granola, even bacon, coffee, pancakes, and a walk with the dogs. The combined wit and wisdom of Helena Blavatsky, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, Paschal Beverly Randolph, Emma Hardinge Britten, Arthur Edward Waite, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Israel Regardie, Gerald Gardner, and, I don't know, L. Ron Hubbard, plus ayahuasca, crystals, and magick (however you wish to spell it) isn't going to help with that.

John Bence may be banishing his demons, evoking divine assistance, doing both, or something else entirely. Certainly he is going about making some extraordinary music.

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