We live our lives suspended in static. An invisible ocean, it seeps into everything, filling every empty space. Static (or radio noise, if you want to be more scientific) is naturally occurring, but it’s increased by the proliferation of technology. One could easily imagine the air we breathe cluttered up by the sewage of human progress, by the electric detritus of our computers, motors, and appliances. And although we can’t perceive it without help, who’s to say that such immersion doesn’t take its toll on us? That we don’t spend our days struggling against it like a tide, waiting for some hand to twist the dial and bring us into focus?
Much of Mesa Ritual, the first full-length collaboration between renowned noise artist William Fowler Collins and Sicksicksick label owner Raven Chacon, is bathed in static, like a signal from an out-of-state station that, through some electromagnetic anomaly, finds its way into your car stereo on a clear night. Sometimes it clings to the surface of the composition, a thin film of pops and crackles. Other times it eclipses the other elements like the umbra of some horrific celestial body. In some instances, these dissonant, mechanical textures are set against field recordings that conjure up natural imagery, the gentle nighttime soundscape of “Procession VII,” for example. The juxtaposition creates a sense of invasion or encroachment, as though technological effluvium were pouring into this pristine pocket and infecting it with the anxieties of the modern world. Perhaps most chilling of all are those instances when the line between the natural and the unnatural becomes blurred. Is it the wind that we hear howling at the climax of the second track or a counterfeit? Have the byproducts of all our technology grown to such ubiquity that they have usurped the offices of the elements themselves?
Along with this exploration of the tension between technology and the natural world comes a distinct spiritual dimension perfectly in keeping with the duo’s name. The first seven tracks are titled “Procession I” through “Procession VII,” and indeed the compositions create the feeling of a slow and perilous journey through both space and time. Echoes of primitive instruments giving voice to primitive rites float to the surface as one song bleeds into the next: the low bass hum that sneaks in towards the end of “Procession I” could be a didgeridoo played for Aboriginal revelers; the warbling harmonics that open “Procession II” could be the bronze trumpets of the Babylonians. They cry out briefly, only to be consumed in the album’s relentless march.
The procession’s destination is the holy ground of “Low Mountain,” easily the most minimal and desolate offering. We hear nothing but the sound of the wind rushing past us, and at last it seems that we’ve found a place free of the poisoning influence of modernity. It is in these austere surroundings where the final ceremonies take place. Loyal readers will already be familiar with “Procession VIII” from M Rubz’s insightful Choco post. The longest track (comprising about a third of the brief album’s total run time) and the logical conclusion to our pilgrimage, “Procession VIII” is a transfixing piece. At first, we hear nothing but a steady ritual drum beat, and for a moment, we could almost believe ourselves safe in the low mountain’s shadow. But, of course, the attentive listener will hear another beat tapped out in rapid plosive bursts working beneath. Over the course of the next 12 minutes, Collins and Chacon build a foreboding drone atop this skeletal backdrop, adding new sounds and new textures that vie with it for dominance. At about 9:45, the sound of the drum has disappeared entirely, and we are left with a static squall slowly escalating in volume.
Forgive my presumption if I posit a metaphor somewhere in this. European settlers and the American government had a variety of technologies at their disposal for subjugating the Americas’ native populations: weapons, industry, agriculture, plagues both accidental and engineered. But maybe the most effective tool in the growing nation’s belt was its own careless consumption of everything this new land had to offer. As the United States gradually filled out its borders, it swallowed up more and more of what the Native Americans needed to survive. The killshot in the war on the First Nations came as a not-wholly expected consequence of American progress. Listening to that ageless drum beat slip below the tide of noise — by a rage of feedback not so different from the flood of invisible pulses secreted by our tools and toys — I think about how indifferent progress can be. The first inhabitants of this land were devoured by the byproducts of our advancement. In time, we will be, too.