According to Buddhist legend, Agart(t)ha is the name of a fabled underworld located within the Earth’s hollow core, a labyrinthine network of cities in which millions live peacefully under the enlightened rule of the King of the World. Appropriately enough, it’s also the name Francesca Marongiu adopts for her debut solo album, a record of pendulating drones and ever-rising tension that’s every bit as chthonic, arcane, obscure, and sepulchral as the mythical world it indirectly quotes. A member of Italian post-rock/experimental duo Architeuthis Rex, Marongiu has been delving into this kind of esoteric and figuratively metaphysical terrain since 2008, but it’s with A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands that she sinks fully into the occult depths of her own numinously-oriented psyche. Its six songs are fluidities of awakened sentience and morbid presentiment, flexing strings of blackened guitar and pearly electronics, and as a unit they bulge and contract toward hidden recesses that always seem to evade penetration and transparency.
Folkloric netherworlds aren’t the only points of departure for these open-ended detours and deluges of unsettling opacity. Marongiu also draws inspiration from Michael Sendivogius, a 16-17th-century Polish alchemist whose experiments with potassium nitrate paved the way both for the discovery of oxygen and for the establishment of chemistry as a “hard” science. Yet like many other alchemists of his age, Sendivogius also had one eye on the purification of metals and on the lapis philosophorum (a.k.a. the Philosopher’s Stone, or the elixir of life), and it’s from one of his works that A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands takes not only its name, but also its preoccupation with transformation, transcendence, and revelation. During “Visions of Alina,” Marongiu covertly shapes her voice into the premonition of some earth-shattering change, enticing whatever secret or fate is hidden under the languidly swirling chords of guitar, chords artfully molded into drifts of wah-wah distortion that seesaw and skirt around the unrevealed object of their attention. On paper, the constantly anticipative nature of not just this aural vortex but also every composition on the album might initially read as an unexciting prospect, but the tones and textures Agarttha employs for each have been so patiently congealed into a distinct soundworld, so carefully ingrained with a cavernous, diffusely sinister atmosphere, that the songs are far more enveloping than their often rudimentary structures would suggest.
The most reductive way of describing these structures is to say that the tracks they form often sound like one long bridge, prolonged and pressurized to the point of a collapse that always threatens its imminence but never quite manifests itself. Clearly, A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands is focused on some prophetic form of becoming or passage, yet at the same time, it seems to take pains to avoid the completion of this becoming, thereby engendering a friction that makes its gloomy canticles only more affecting. Even when “Melusine” reaches its expulsive crescendo at the four-minute mark, it retains the same precipitative to-ing and-fro-ing tonal pattern, almost as if its idea of renovative purity is simply to have its cake and eat it too, to become something else while not having to face the repercussions of losing what it once was (a conflict possibly invoked by the album’s title). Issues and contradictions surrounding the process of transition are also central to perhaps the album’s most recognizable inspiration — Jung and his theories on individual development. In fact, “Melusine” takes its name from a century-spanning figure that Jung, in his “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,” identifies as a personfication of the feminine nature of the unconscious, which must be fully acknowledged and integrated into the ego if the individual is ever to become a “whole” person. Of course, this submerged alter ego (which, judging by the lyrics sheet, is actually male in Agarttha’s case) is never directly broached over the course of the record’s subliminal fulminations, so that in the end it and its emanations of spectral guitar (deliberately) fail to attain the unified Syzygy it mysteriously and obliquely refers to for much of its duration.
To her credit, however, Marongiu doesn’t simply regurgitate Jungian speculation and inquiry verbatim over the course of her spellbound dirges, even if “Visions of Alina” contains a faithful reference to the quaternary mandala Jung often wrote about as a symbol of the divinely holistic Self (“The desert god comes from the four angles of the world”). The most obvious line of separation would seem to be that, whereas for Jung the dawn of a harmoniously realized personality was the highest and most salutary ideal a person could aim at, Marongiu casts the emergence and conjunction of the usually buried aspects of our psychologies in a much darker light, strumming crypts of phantasmal fog that echo with such cultishly whispered lyrics as “God rises from death/ Rises from death/ Rises from death/ I fall in hell” and “Why are you afraid/ Crying in dismay.” This second couplet comes from “The Sphynx,” and while it’s true that Jung himself acknowledged how the journey of self-discovery may initially be harrowing (“What the inner voice whispers to us is something generally negative, if not actually evil”), the song never eases from its air of otherworldly foreboding and hieroglyphed menace, its floating guitar tines and tribal drums portending an unknowable death rather than an epiphanic birth (correspondingly, one of Marongiu’s direct sources was a Jungian case study of an 8-year old girl who dreamed of her own sudden death).
Once again, the focal point is an object or event that unnervingly lurks just out of sight, implying a myopia or blindness that’s accentuated by arguably the most central of A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands’ formal traits. Perhaps not surprisingly, its sonics are perpetually “wet” throughout, with chords, notes, and occasional electronics trailing, ringing, wafting, rising, and dispersing into the ether, where they escape any cognizance or certainty that might’ve pinned them to a reassuring, predictable identity. Beyond the lurking percussion, nothing is even remotely staccato or aurally self-contained; “Chymische Hochzeit” features single bass notes that linger imposingly underneath a radiating higher-register guitar sweep that drips incestuously with reverb, while “Storms As He Walks” is an asphyxiated cloud chamber of shape-shifting fuzz and molten synthesizer. But in any case, these are pieces of post-rock/drone/experimental post-punk that are absorbing almost as much for what they don’t reveal as for what they do, and despite the fact that this latent withdrawal and elusiveness may prove a frustrating tease on the rare occasion, it’s entirely consistent with Marongiu’s source material and the artistic blueprint she has coaxed out of it. Jung himself said that the self is the “totality of the conscious and unconscious psyche, but this totality transcends our vision; it is a veritable lapis invisibilitatis,” and with A Water Which Does Not Wet Hands, Agarttha has portrayed this intangibility in as tangible a way as musically possible.