Wednesday, November 19, 2014

album review: 'words to the blind' by savages & bo ningen

Let's talk a little about collaboration albums. Outside of hip-hop, pop, and occasionally country, it's fairly rare to see artists from two different acts work together on an official collaboration, especially when you venture towards the more indie genres. Sure, you get your supergroups or when a member of another band jumps on a song or two to provide some additional texture, but team-ups between two distinctive bands or musical acts is a hell of a lot rarer, especially over the course of an entire album - mostly because it doesn't always tend to work. It's not like a guest rapper jumping on for verses, this is the fusion of distinctive artistic styles in songwriting and instrumentation, and most often it results in both acts meeting in the middle with watered-down blends of their own unique styles, or one group completely subsuming the other.

And yet this year one of the collaboration albums that has been high on my personal radar was this one, an enigmatic single track stretched over thirty five minutes to "album" length. The first contributing group was the all-female post-punk group Savages, who you should all remember from last year dropping one of the best records of 2013 with Silence Yourself, delivering a brutally cutting message through potent and explosive instrumentation. The second group is the Japanese acid-post-punk group Bo Ningen - and I'll admit right out of the gate that I wasn't all that familiar with them, and what I did hear was a little disconcerting and not exactly to my tastes. For one, the tone of their material was a lot more spasmodic, jerky and off-kilter between melodic and dissonant intervals that didn't seem to have the coiled intensity and grit of a band like Savages.

Now it turns out they've collaborated before - lead vocalist of Savages Jehnny Beth has contributed vocals to a few Bo Ningen songs, but their most recent collaboration 'C.C.' featured a lot more messy, noisy guitar lines and a frantically overstuffed mix that didn't flatter anyone, especially Bo Ningen lead singer Taigen Kawabe with his skittering, shrieked vocals. And considering this project was a single track, I was very concerned this could prove to be a real ordeal to sit through. But then again, Savages has earned enough goodwill with me, so I steeled myself for whatever might come and listened through Words To The Blind - what did we get?

Well, this is going to take some explaining, because Words To The Blind by Savages and Bo Ningen is a... difficult album. And I mean difficult as not just the length, but the abrasive texture, the dense, expansive yet claustrophobic atmosphere, the abstract lyrics in three different languages, and the hazy, surrealist, half-improvised feel of the piece. It's probably one of the most challenging pieces of pure art I've examined this year, especially given the layered historical influences that feed into it. But is it worth your time to check out? Well, if you're looking for a challenge, absolutely, especially if you're a fan of surrealism with a deeply tragic element, but it's also the sort of piece that defies easy categorization and rating, and it's also the sort of musical piece that will scare away all but the most diehard fans - mostly because it's not so much of an album as it is performance art. In other words, all of you who complain I don't talk enough about 'art' in my opening line better strap in, we're going deep for this one.

Now what is performance art? Simply enough, it is when art is performed to an audience, often spanning multiple disciplines from spoken word to music to the most harrowing tests of human endurance. Modern culture has started to become more accustomed to performance art thanks to Lady Gaga and Jay-Z's affiliations with Marina Abramovich, held as the 'godmother of performance art', but what Savages and Bo Ningen are aiming for is something with deeper historical roots to the movements of surrealism and Dadaism. The first is somewhat straightforward, originally defined in France in the 1920s through tapping into pure unconscious thought and dream logic to sketch scenes that defy logic and common sense. Elements of surrealism came from Dadaism, an older movement that came in the wake of World War One, a movement driven out of cynicism with a modern culture that drove millions to their graves. Where art conformed to aesthetics, a Dadaist piece was anti-art, designed to offend, appall, shock, and embrace chaos and seeming irrationality. Musically, you could draw some parallels to the wilder, more surreal edges of anarcho-punk, with one of the most famous acts Chumbawamba making a statement upon their breakup in 2012 that their collected body of work could be conceived as Dadaist. And really, it makes sense - from an aesthetic sense certainly in their cacophonous blending of genres across their thirty years of existence, but also in their career progression and themes, taking traditional structures of punk, dance music, pop, folk, and even musicals and fusing it with constant commentary about said genres uniformity and eventual degeneration.

All of these influences come into sharp focus when you first examine Words To The Blind. From surrealism you get the dream-like spaces of snarled post-punk atmosphere, abstract half-heard lyrics running together, waves of cacophonous distortion interweaving with each other. From Dadaism you get the asynchronous elements, the binaural clash and harshness of half-improvised segments and lyrics, driven in stark, half-deranged broad strokes from Bo Ningen and subtler, more sinister shades by Savages. And from performance art you get the stage ensemble, a borderline-live recording punctuated by cheers from a crowd and both bands facing each other across each prong of a U-shape. And therein lies the first problem with my critique of this album - it's a performance art piece, and the only part of it I can experience is the music. I can imagine the faux symmetry of the stage - Bo NIngen on one side feeding into the left ear, Savages and a guitar hung like a gong from the ceiling on the other feeding into the right - but it's not quite the same as actually seeing it. 

And that's not even touching on the fact that, well, I don't speak Japanese or French very well, so parsing out what the album is trying to say is more of a struggle. It begins with whispered words from both bands, Savages in French and Bo Ningen in Japanese, an agonizingly slow build where the first strums of the guitar doesn't come in until the two minute mark. The voices get louder, more heated, seemingly talking past each other, with my meagre French allowing me to pick up some of the plainly violent words as the reverb intensifies, a metallic echo chamber, not reaching anyone but themselves. The guitar feedback begins to squeal as the mix swells, with the sputtering of Bo Ningen's jagged guitars matching the more ghostly, booming, yet more defined tones of Savages. The drums sputter to life, Bo Ningen's bass growls against the thicker walls of sound Savages produces. The mix eventually cools to a quick patter of snare drums and ghostly emptiness, eerie vocal calls and distinctive guitar tones as cymbals fade in and out - the second chapter. Savages' cymbals and Kawabe's cries are most distinctive until a distant rush of feedback, where Savages' more uniform brand of ominous swell battles with Bo Ningen's more scattered calls and assertive drumming. Until the guitars begin coming in, building in fragments of a groove. Savages gets there first, reaching a twisted brand of syncopation where it almost sounds like trumpet like horns are supplementing Savages' arrangement and Bo Ningen's more ragged, spiky tone. The two trade bass and guitar jabs, with Bo Ningen seeming to gain the more rattling, experimental groove and hold it as the mix starts to recede, become more brittle - until an eerie flicker of feedback from Savages triggers the drums dropping into tight symmetry.

Then in the third segment, a pattern seems to emerge - tigthly regimented drum progressions from both, before explosive blasts of roaring guitars and feedback from both side crushes them down. The pace quickens, and you notice that while Bo Ningen's guitars might be more strident, Savages' distortion lingers a little longer. They break from each other, and a competition seems to form, where both sides deliver furiously explosive howling surges of noise - back and forth, both showing fragments of structure but getting more and more demented with every strike before a cheering crowd. The two trade blasts of ear-splitting feedback for a minute before spiky guitar leads start ricocheting off each other, before both begin to elongate into more extensive riffs. Then the bass guitars start going back and forth, interweaving their groove, the drums come back, and an odd sort of union forms. Bo Ningen provides the texture, Savages the atmosphere, a melodic shape resting on jagged foundations. And a minute later in the fourth segment, Jehnny Beth starts to speak - in English, and on the opposite side from her band. She speaks of jealousy, reapers, betrayals, enemies separated by great distances, a failure to communicate and understand. A mantra begins that will dominate the rest of the piece, cementing those themes and turning the song into a hazy, post-punk dirge. Taigen Kawabe's voice comes in opposite her, languidly drifting across the mix, and only accenting that separating distance. The mix fades out as the guitars rattle back in for a final explosion, punctuated by feedback and howls from both vocalists as the drums unify into lockstep and finally in a rush of cymbals - finally - we reach a conclusion.

So how to discuss a piece like this? Surrealist and Dadaist works rarely lend themselves to easy analysis - it's hard to quantify chaos - but some themes reveal themselves here. Most prominent is the failure to communicate - different languages talking past each other into echoing space, two messages crossing each other and ricocheting off. There's anger, confusion, and resentment here, but it also reveals a despair showing that lack of communication. Go a little further and you realize that there is a gender divide as well - one band all men, the other all women - and a failed relationship was described - metaphorical of the inability to communicate certain primal truths thanks to that divide? Much of Dadaist material was structured around themes of regression to more primal, chaotic times - and then you realize the places where the bands found most in common was in sheer, howling arrhythmic distortion and noise. And then there's the crowd - I'm convinced the inclusion of their reaction was intentional, and that while the bands were 'communicating' with each other, they were also messages shown to an audience who applauded with delight. For the technical prowess and interplay, I can get that, but think - themes of frustration, inability to connect, despair at insurmountable truths that can only be crossed by regression, is that the sort of thing people should applaud? And given both bands' confrontational focus, it's not difficult to extrapolate that those 'words to the blind' were spoken to us.

Now granted, listeners who are more fluid in French or Japanese can tell me if I'm talking completely out of my ass here, but regardless of it, Words to The Blind by Savages and Bo NIngen is powerful. Crushingly abrasive and yet surprisingly cohesive, with fantastic flow, gripping melodies, and superb instrumental interplay across the board, it's a genuinely great art piece that easily earns an 8/10 and a high recommendation from me. It does run a little long and demands patience - and some moments of distortion are a little too shrill, even for me - but this is something special. And considering I'm only seeing a piece of this performance, that's saying something.

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