For me, the best music continues to reveal itself over time. Repeated listening sessions tease out hidden meaning, subtle nuances within dense orchestration, a new perspective that connects with a different mood: like any relationship, it’s a process. Two of my most recent favorite albums embody their own paths toward this foundational kind of musical understanding quite overtly in the symbolism of their formal structures. Here are a few of my thoughts about this incredible music, as well as two invaluable approaches to deep listening made easy as pie when the right sounds are made by the right hands.
Ariadne - Tsalal
Ariadne is an immersive “sacred music” project based in Brooklyn, and “Tsalal” is their first full-length. Working with as much attention to detail in digitally rendered video as music, this duo almost needs a new kind of discipline to describe the totality of their work: “sacred multimedia,” perhaps? The band is named after the Greek mistress of labyrinths, and the video for opening track “I Thirst” emerges quite literally with a labyrinth image, slowly descending into an intense multidimensional underworld.
Musically, the assertive melodies of “Tsalal” draw from early music influences, and perhaps a bit from more contemporary industrial/world artists in terms of production and atmosphere (Dead Can Dance and Current 93 come to mind). But flawless production values and rich reverbs aside, this is no pop project: the music is hewn from a wide range of digital electronics, with a devotion to glitches, open space, and jarring percussion textures. “Tsalal” is Hebrew for the notion of “becoming dark,” and the lyrics for these pieces embody the concept with painful clarity, narrating a slow descent from a position of weakness, through death itself, and into a kind of ain that an optimist like me turns into the beginning of another “fool’s journey.” Or perhaps the switch simply remains off—I’ll leave that one up to you, dear listener.
Traveling a long, winding course within a circumscribed space, labyrinths can be a catalyst for focused and ongoing meditation, and this music demands that level of attention. This is a music of extremes, sometimes veering from feeling claustrophobically trapped to larger than the heavens within the space of a minute. The flawless production and skilled vocal work of Christine Lanx contrast acutely with regular encroachments of glitches, cutting through the atmosphere like a peek behind a ceremonial matrix. And as sacred as this music often feels, the emphasis on ominous sounds and stark grayscale imagery in the videos evokes a sort of creepypasta vibe as well. Taken as a whole, “Tsalal” is a potent, mythical journey—not exactly the kind that brightens up your day or pumps you up in some “hero’s journey” fashion, but instead our collective facades and personal prisons are brought into necessarily dim focus.
My favorite piece here, both musically and visually, is “Forsaken.” Both the video and the music investigate a unique approach to light within mostly-darkened space: as a particularly enduring melody slowly unfolds, the companion video focuses on a stray beam of light as it slips into a mostly-enclosed aquatic space. As the visual perspective gradually shifts viewpoints around this scrap of light, the music seems to turn with it. It’s a powerful multisensory experience.
But if you want to share the video vibes of “Forsaken,” you’re going to need to track down the physical edition of “Tsalal,” which was issued on a microSD card by Auris Apothecary. It’s an unconventional media format choice, no doubt—the tiniest conceivable object tasked with containing such a tremendous formal work—but it’s also an effective way to distribute Ariadne’s work with the full-resolution audio and video it demands. You can find several videos for “Tsalal” pieces at Ariadne’s Youtube page, but to experience all of them, as well as a nicely-produced digital booklet, you’re going to want to pick up the physical edition right here.
Zeek Sheck - JOINUS
Where Ariadne’s work is circumscribed within The Labyrinth, detailing a grand descent, Zeek Sheck’s fifth and final opus, “JOINUS,” works in almost the opposite direction: already deep underground in The Maze, whose escape route has been lost to time, ascent is the goal of our heroic Cloud People.
JOINUS is the story of escape from a maze “built to be super complex,” but the story proves to be an exasperatingly complex maze itself, the culmination of a circuitous mythology leading all the way back to the beginning of the ZS project in the 90s (and even the subliminal-ish healing tapes predating the music). The music is every bit as fascinating as the narrative: veering from off-off-broadway feral chant-alongs to plodding early Ralph Records weirdness, combining an idiosyncratic approach to the folk tradition with industrial textures and acid-psych atmospheres, the songs behind the Blue Door and the Red Door will scramble your inner reception. And that’s just the first LP. On the 2nd record, the Yellow Door and the Green Door open into side-length worlds of modular arpeggios, electroacoustic soundscapes, and aberrant contemporary classical chamber ensembles, getting closer to the surface as each improbable minute passes.
I think I said something like this the last time I highlighted a Resipiscent release, but seriously: when I first got into 20th C. “classical” composition stuff, this music is exactly what I hoped to hear someday. Uncompromising. Unpredictable. Adventurous. Truly free. There are so few albums that can totally nail weird songwriting and ambitious “art music” approaches, and JOINUS makes it sound effortless. And it gets even more engaging with each repeated listen. The more we all tune in, focusing our energy on music that can embody parts challenge, chaos, and redemption, we might collectively have a fighting chance at getting out of our own godforsaken maze and joining up with the Cloud People again.
I suspect that a lot of weirdo music folks are already familiar with the earlier Zeek Sheck albums, especially the first two that came out on Skin Graft in the early 90s. I’m bummed to admit that I totally missed out the first time around, so the whole wild world of ZS has become almost an obsession of mine over the last year. While you certainly don’t need to hear the earlier albums to dig on JOINUS, I’m sure glad I went back to check them out. And this is the perfect, epic place to start if you’ve never met the Beepers or Shecks or Cloud People before.
Seriously, one of the best albums of the last decade, and one that will never live far from my turntable. The beautiful inner gatefold features amazing door/maze/surface artwork, and if you want to dig into the specifics of the broader Zeek Sheck story, you’ll find the finale of JOINUS detailed in full at http://www.zeeksheck.com. But head to Resipiscent Records right now, and get some Zeek Sheck in your life.