On “Palm Tree Corpse,” Dominick Fernow states that, if he could, he would “take a tree branch and ram it inside you”; but the way he calmly intones the words makes the statement come off as rationalized rather than impulsive, as if such a violent act were completely acceptable. More so than just simply describing a gory act, such a line can be taken as a sort of manifesto. Fernow has been at the forefront of the noise scene for over a decade now, and through his music and record label-cum-store, Hospital Productions, he’s assaulted the world with the bleakest of feelings and the most brutal of sounds. In a recent interview, he asserted that “noise is the freedom to pursue personal obsession, outside of genre and audience.” One listen to the piercing, trebled feedback that characterizes much of his enormous output and you know that Fernow is doing this for himself, not for the listener.
Bermuda Drain is Fernow’s first original work as Prurient in over two years. During this sabbatical, he has been satisfying his black metal urges (Ash Pool), delving into stark minimalist techno (Vatican Shadow), and playing keyboard and electronics for close friend Wes Eisold’s dark synth pop project, Cold Cave. All of these creative excursions into other murky, blackened forms of music certainly help to inform the sound of Bermuda Drain. In fact, hardcore noise fans showing up for another round of sonic punishment will be sorely disappointed with what they find here. Gone are the exhausting, mesmerizing long-form pieces that constituted records like Pleasure Ground, and gone are the unrelenting exhibitions of static and feedback that were touchstones of his work. Instead, we have something approaching accessibility, with structured songs, clearer production (especially on the vocals), and an expanded palette due to the new and unfamiliar equipment he used on this album to signify an aesthetic break from his past.
In fact, Bermuda Drain’s precisely crafted sonic bed has more in common with expert sound sculptors like Ben Frost and even Nico Muhly than it does with those more readily associated with the harsh noise or power-electronics scene. Fernow is now showing restraint, moving away from the “anti-musical” ideas — for example, the feeling of exclusion and interminable stasis as a listener — that he has claimed to only have been interested in on past records. There is a definite sense of movement in these tracks (see: verse-chorus-verse), which Fernow attributes to, in his own special way, the tedium of physical movement through expansive wide-open spaces. It’s the same feeling you get after a straight-through headphones listen of this record: exhilarating, challenging, strange, and, of course, more than slightly uncomfortable.
The most jarring aspect of Bermuda Drain is Fernow’s steely-eyed spoken-word performance. His love of writing and willingness to incorporate both his own work and the writing of others into his pieces has always existed, but the difference here is that there vocals are now front and center. Despite his best efforts to “avoid sounding like horrendous spoken-word at a local cafe,” there is an undeniable kitsch at work that both plays in favor and detracts from the record’s desired affectations. Over crystalline, Vangelis-like synths on “Many Jewels Surround the Crown,” Fernow’s vocals work in an impressively cryptic manner, like some futuristic mercenary setting up a clandestine rendezvous. The title track also manages to conjure a grim future with images of being covered in seaweed and shrimp angiosperm over concern about being watched by time. The minimal palette of shifting sounds only adds to the unease, every now and then a predator drone combing the sky overhead.
But just as the vocals add a positive dimension to Prurient’s sound, they also contribute an unwelcomed “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” to the proceedings. Whereas Fernow previously came off as a seething blackened soul, uncompromising and necessarily unknowable, something not quite real, he shows a little bit too much of himself here. And where in the past his heavy-handedness took the form of obliterating sonics and grotesque explorations of life’s darker elements, some of his chosen vocal stylings on this album are only threatening in the same way as, say, Cradle of Filth or The Undertaker. “Watch Silently” could have been my favorite track on the album with its crushing industrial maelstrom, but thanks to the caveman-method acting on Fernow’s behalf, some of the power and seriousness is backgrounded.
However, fans of industrial music will surely find something to latch onto, with songs like “There Are Still Secrets” and “A Meal Can Be Made” having something for rivetheads and even less-pedantic black-metalheads alike. The songs also show an impressive virtuosity, a mastery of all the dark sonic arts. Perhaps its something you’d expect from him considering his track record of dabbling in “extreme music” (and also owning a record store that’s devoted to those genres), but it’s impressive nonetheless. And considering how the extreme noise world can often be unforgiving and conservative, releasing an album like this is certainly a bold move. So, despite any missteps, Bermuda Drain is laudable simply for its willingness to branch out and discover new ways of expression. Rather than be equated with a run-of-the-mill genre release from a master of the form, it’s a sign of growth from an always daring artist.