Kevin Drumm’s greatest successes in his long career have occurred when the chaos of his music utterly overwhelms the listener’s sense of authorship. Of course, he’s always in control, but quite early on, with albums like the classic Sheer Hellish Miasma or Horror of Birth, the illusion of reckless abandonment to sonic violence overtakes any sense that anything other than some mad, inhuman force controls what we’re hearing. Such a feeling might derive from a number of sources: sensory and affective overload, the sheer impenetrability of the architecture of the piece, the inability to determine the source of the sounds, activation of fear and pleasure centers in the brain, or finally just total immersion. With so few gaps in the musical landscape, there is no time to think.
Enter Relief, which, though it takes the form of sonic assault in the tradition of releases like Sheer Hellish Misama (as opposed to Drumm’s more spacious early work or more recent drone-based albums on Hospital Productions), reveals, amid its static squalls, a more restrained sonic artificer. It should be clear that relief implies not the sensation of calm after the lifting of a stressor, but rather a sculpture carved into a surface. Relief will not provide any escape from anxieties (except insofar as it’s an aesthetic experience). From its first moments until its final fadeout, its tension never releases. Persistent waves of modular static and an unshakable minor-key phrase fill Relief’s single track, so those looking for peace should look elsewhere.
Relief’s sculptural qualities consist in these two elements alternating in and out of stasis. At some points in the piece, the wall of noise shifts into new forms; at others, the droning, melodic phrase morphs into a new phase. Thus, one piece of the sonic puzzle tends to be an unmoved medium, a surface, on which the other part carves out a motif. Relief reveals through this process the sculptor’s hand. In breaking from the chaotic senselessness of his previous work, Drumm himself appears as manipulator. In Relief’s readability we sense an author, a plan.
Anywhere else, this might be a boon to the composer — the architectonics of his or her grand design peeking through the work itself, revealing more profound depths. But the depths of Drumm’s music stand at the level of the textures themselves. Any abstraction from the immediacy of the texture threatens to disrupt the listening experience, and while the conceptual layer of Relief certainly enriches the work, it prevents full immersion. Its roiling seas are less affective, and the repetitious elements show their sources. Relief will certainly inject a dose of brutality into your day, but Drumm’s restraint means that it works more on the cerebrum than it does the reptilian brain. This development promises great potential for a more complete balance of these aspects of Drumm’s work, and Relief feels like a way-point on the path of that more perfect union. It can still overwhelm, and its harsh textures still assault, but it never fully envelops the listener in a sonic environment. Instead of commanding attention, Relief allows it to drift, preventing the listener’s final escape into the contentless void of sonic oblivion.