That set of Demdike Stare’s three 2010 LPs, with the addition of 40 minutes of unreleased music, drew together the different sides of their crate-digging sound into a mind-bending, will-sapping monument, but the collection nevertheless was more a retrospective than an album intended to be listened to in one sitting. With Elemental, which, like Tryptych, culls together vinyl-only material released over the past several months along with several unreleased tracks, the songs were intended from the beginning to be heard together — indeed, the box even preceded the set, as the music on this 2CD compilation was first released in a four-part gatefold package (sold out) that initially came half-empty, to be filled by two subsequently-released colored-vinyl 12-inches. On this bigger canvas, Demdike Stare’s soundscapes become less expressionist and more abstract, and listening to the complete Elemental (streaming on Modern Love’s SoundCloud ), one can hear Demdike Stare’s samples spreading out in every direction, obscuring the horizon between ground and sky in a miasma of echo and amplitude. On Elemental, Demdike Stare continue their experiments with dub alchemy: at their best, relieving their samples from the laws of physics, making them hover menacingly and disperse only reluctantly, despoiling the air like mustard gas, like bass vibrations invade the body.
Elemental has an existential portentousness. The rhythms on the album mostly emerge as dead thumps, often literally coming across as the sounds of dead weight falling: samples of heavy chains dropping or sticks striking lifelessly onto drum membrane. This dread is expressed through the dissonant textures of late modernism: Ominous orchestral samples moan in the background of “Violetta,” alongside prepared piano and looped static. “Dauerline” juxtaposes a cello’s sampled, eternal groan with slashes of metallic noise. “Erosion of Mediocrity” produces relentless intensity with an industrial orchestra à la the Young Gods: Furious percussion, distant foghorn blasts, squalls of violin, and unidentifiable apocalyptic screeches careen through an ocean of echo. Tension builds and builds across momentary pauses, roaring back each time with more power than ever, and yet Demdike Stare summon this fin de siècle symphonic bombast without ever building to a crescendo. Instead, their songs subside into echo, as in “Falling Off the Edge,” in which a sampled choir amasses sound the way a black hole consumes stars.
Despite this lack of light, submerged dance influences can be made out. On “Kommunion,” a murky kick drum emerges here or there, a techno skeleton showing through the skin of Demdike Stare’s stark surfaces. “Mnemosyne” is a riotous, alien techno track anchored by a steady synth pulse. Beginning with programmed snares, it erupts into metal striking and sliding across metal, the squealing attack of an unknown instrument, a sitar, and exotic horn scales. “Nuance” is the most artfully minimalist of the set: exquisitely composed silences, unidentifiable parabolas of sound, pinned to a muffled techno 4/4 grid. Elemental resounds as well with classic industrial textures. Demdike Stare fashion a loop out of slamming metal doors and dropped chains on “Kommunion” and merge vaguely tabla-sounding snippets of tuned percussion with loops of struck, pounded, upset metal on “Falling Off the Edge.” But for the most part, Demdike Stare’s samples are processed to the point of unrecognizability. On “Ishmael’s Intent,” looped horn sounds wobble and shiver with phasing and reverb, merging with backwards-processed noise to uncanny effect. Is that a passing whistle or a single guitar note pealing on “Mephisto’s Lament”? Are those horns that have been processed into singing voices, or vice versa, on “Kommunion”?
Perhaps it’s just because of regressive copyright laws, but as it’s been utilized in the past 20 years, the sample is all about recognizability, from Puff Daddy’s big-ticket use of Led Zeppelin riffs to the politically-correct heteroglossia of Girl Talk. Demdike Stare, all along, have thwarted the legibility of their samples. Many of the “exotic” textures that are used to compose their arcana are not actually recordings of ritual music from non-Western cultures, but hail from much closer to home. The duo’s samples are sourced from library music off old British documentaries, from hoary classic-rock jams, or from (recently much-mined) Italian horror movie soundtracks, as the duo explains in an interview with The Wire: They say “the way we search for music is like looking for drone aspects on a rock record, looking for World Music aspects on a UK record. It’s finding hidden tracks which people ignore.” Demdike Stare’s samples emanate from the West’s own imagination of the East, finding that what seems to be Other is actually a reflection of a part of the self. Whittaker tells of “this crazy noise, drone section in the middle of a rock record that I discovered completely by accident. That’s kind of how I look for music now: I’m looking for something in the wrong place.”
This approach to sampling — finding the unrecognizable in the familiar — hearkens back to perhaps the original sample, the taped collages of musique concrète. In the 1950s heyday of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer took a recording of a bell, cut off the attack, and looped the sustained tone, creating an eerie, unidentifiable quaver that hung in the air like a mirage. In doing so, he created a unique “sonic object” with no identifiable source in reality, performing in sound perception Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, bracketing out information of a perception’s source or cause in order to describe the object as it appears in consciousness. By intentionally ignoring knowledge or perceptions of the origins of the sound, Schaeffer believed that we could train ourselves to hear sounds as objects in-themselves.
In concealing their sources, Demdike Stare thus reveal new surfaces in the essential shape of sound. This hearkens back to the original meaning of the word dub — the dubplate, or the one-off mixes pressed onto acetate, label blank or steamed off as insurance of the exclusivity of the DJ’s sound material. But dub also derives from duppy, the Jamaican word for spirit or ghost: with each play, the DJ’s stylus smoothed down the dubplate’s groove, submerging the original song more and more into silence with each pass, like an echo. On Elemental, Demdike Stare give us glimmers of melody — looped chimes or listless piano figures — shivering out from the cloud of reverb, but for the most part what we get are dub shadows of songs, low on contrast and grainy with dust particles, uncanny echoes and malevolent drones. A series of ghosts.