The King, The Prince, The Governing Body
It is essential that beastly virtues bleed into those stemming from the humane if one wishes to prosper as a ruling head of state. Maintenance of stability within the realm is imperative and must be achieved through conduct that adheres to both honor and glory ad captandum vulgus, which, according to Niccolò Machiavelli, will involve succumbing to deeds epitomizing the lion’s wrath and the fox’s cunning when governance is threatened by external forces. As obscure as it may seem upon first glance, the scattered interplay of realpolitik and its prolificacy across public discourse is most commonplace. However, the documentation of these ideas at the time of our Italian libertine was revolutionary, and it brought the entire notion of governance into question when his treatise, The Prince, was exported from Tuscany and translated for the benefit of the ruling elite across the rest of Europe. Through this wide-spreading of literature, Kings, Princes and rulers alike were fed a new line of guidance as justification for brutality and authoritarianism on the grounds that stability be maintained, whatever the cost.
The King of Hearts is said to be a depiction of Charles I, King of the Franks and pioneer of realpolitik moderne. It is also the title for the first collaboration between Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Christopher Chaplin, which sports an amicable frontispiece of the king depicted in traditional playing card form. Avant-garde composer and Krautrock pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius is renowned for his incongruous collaborations with a wide range of artists, from Brian Eno to Tim Story. His agility and determination to evolve compositions over time has brought him admiration from a sundry deck of contemporary musicians and has also made him the subject of a Stephan Iliffe biography, which features a forward by Eno. This release sees him teaming up with Christopher Chaplin, a Swiss composer who, on a somewhat trivial note, is also the youngest son of Charlie Chaplin. Together, these intriguing artists have released an LP that is difficult to pinpoint in terms of thematic delegation, musically speaking, but that plays on their eagerness to create something both classical and unorthodox. Though it has the potential to arouse curiosity with its tender piano con dolore and larghetto cello twangs, the King, in this instance, is a tame and placid ruler who struggles to adhere to the principles deemed so imperative, dramatic, and ultimately captivating by Machiavelli.
When the treatise was first penned in 1513, Florence was considered a city state as opposed to the capital of Tuscany as it stands today. One of the central challenges that its rulers (of which there were a great deal) in the 16th Century faced was the threat of being overthrown by a foreign power, whether it be the King of France, who invaded in 1494, or by interference from the Pope and his family, who destabilized the balance of power that formulated mass periods of tumult and dissatisfaction among the governed during the course of Machiavelli’s lifetime. This destabilization is very much reflected in the artwork of high renaissance classicism, while it is also adopted as a principle aesthetic in Roedelius and Chaplin’s latest offering. Spiraling mechanical whirs bookend tracks such as “N’est-ce Pas” and “Tout-à-Fait,” the latter of which proceeds to flaunt rippling synth interjections and staggered xylophone keys over underlying strings. The effect is relatively frustrating and ultimately destabilized by its own inconsistency; though intimate variations in atmosphere and anticipation are created, they also become quite obstructive. This style is so typical throughout the album, in fact, that the desired effect is deflated as a consequence of neglected structures.
Despite these various distracting inconsistencies, however, there are propelled moments of great beauty and intricacy on the record. “Comme Ça” opens with high-pitched violin strings that pirouette across glistening spianato keys in a wonderfully captivating sequence. Roedelius’ gorgeous piano rendition on “Aussi Bien” also makes for an exceptional listen that brings a grand sense of promise to the working relationship between these composers and the art that they create together. Sadly, though, these instances seldom occur, and when they do they are capsized in a sea of stuffy tedium. Machiavelli remained almost indifferent to the beauty and wonder of medieval Florence that lay before him, and this makes for a striking, albeit rather uncanny, similarity between author and artist. Like Brunellechi’s marvelous design of the Cathedral dome or Giotto’s masterful bell tower that are ignored in the Machiavellian canon, the scattered examples of grip that are given life on The King of Hearts are also dwarfed by darker, drawn-out compositions that are apparently pitted to contrast them.
Torture (Put to the Hoist)
Torture and acts of violence are cards that the ruler should always be willing to play, according to the key figure in this governance analogy, but only if traces of grace and honor can be attributed to their good faith in resorting to these methods — i.e., if ends can justify means. The monotonous “experimental” pieces that are presented on this album charge epic drone and electric guitar trundling with misplaced bells and gaff-like horns that attempt to imitate the more angular recordings of Dieter Schnebel or Brice Pauset; this is most apparent on the semi-elevator music filler of “Voici,” the album’s closing number. Elsewhere, “Tant Mieux” sounds like disabled Tinsley Ellis rehashing over sped-up Brian McBride demos that continue the strict regiment of irregularity and destabilization, which may allow the album to branch out in bearing avant-garde qualities in composition, but that simply do not work. To say that these pieces are tantamount to torture would be a drastic overstatement, but then again, that very concept is said to come in a variety of subjective forms, music being one of them.
Stability and the Foundations of Rule
Machiavelli wrote as a consequence of immediate practical affiliations with the government before being chastised, tortured, and exiled. These experiences were then complemented by his obsessive readings of Livy and Tacitus, which provided a firm grounding on the Roman tradition through which he pinned his arguments. Roedelius in particular has a wealth of experience under his belt in terms of composition and experimentation, but this fails to shine through in his collaboration with Chaplin. Though there are indeed gratifying and joyful moments on this release, the majority of these songs remain as ambivalent as their titles. If The King of Hearts were to establish his rule and make any kind of impact, he would require a much firmer set of foundations than a deck of delicate tracks that seem set to collapse into the whimsical dirges that surround them.