Reinvention’s double-edged sword is a valuable but precarious tool in any artist’s repertoire. Valuable because it pushes the work to discover new territory and converse in new forms. Precarious because it can alienate the audience, but also crucially because new territory poses new obstacles and challenges to your usual methods. However, regardless of the danger, reinvention sometimes becomes necessary. In a discussion with jazz critic Stanley Crouch, James Mtume (former band mate of fusion-era Miles Davis) paints the artist’s dilemma as deeply opposed to the common critical notion that artists reinvent themselves in order to “stay relevant” or to chase what’s hip. Mtume asserts that Miles Davis’ turn to electronics evolved out of pure technical exhaustion; in order to express new ideas, Davis expanded his vocabulary. While the critics attacked Davis for seemingly turning his back on jazz, Davis was too busy making art to notice.
Dominick Fernow’s reinvention of Prurient may be due to similar factors, here an exhaustion of forms and textures rather than the technical capacities of his equipment (though he is clearly using different gear). Prurient has existed in some form since 1998, and in the course of that period, Fernow has clocked over 100 releases. Most of them consist primarily of harsh noise. Without a doubt, Fernow has mastered what he once helped pioneer. The risks of not reinventing Prurient outweigh the obstacles of new territory, and Fernow’s expansion of his own vocabulary to include beat-driven house and techno forms presents new challenges and new abilities.
But something else has changed. Beyond mere appropriation of new ideas and new structures, Through the Window — which features three tracks from the same recording sessions that produced Bermuda Drain and the Time’s Arrow EP — witnesses Fernow shifting his whole stance on music creation. Here, a sweaty, shirtless Fernow screaming mercilessly into a death-gripped microphone seems not just out of place, but remote, impossibly distant. When Fernow whispers throughout the title track and “You Show Great Spirit,” it’s clear that his personal catharsis is no longer entering the equation at the same intensity. This relaxed posture feels more controlled and careful, but the viscerality of the experience has slipped away into the persistent beats, bloodlessly thumping out 4/4 time. They recall scenes of dilapidated warehouses and grim, bad drug-fueled raves, but not the disintegration or explosion of a personality.
Perhaps all that catharsis has finally purified Fernow of his ego. As prolific as ever, he has become a kind of chameleon in the landscape of the noise jungle, to the point where he has probably created at least one alias or group that he hasn’t even claimed as his own. With a hand in so many projects, it’s plausible that Fernow has quieted that desire to explode and, with the calm air of mastery, has assumed the chair of the producer, the man behind the curtain. But Through the Window doesn’t display genius so much as accuracy. Fernow has succeeded in learning the language of house and techno, and he imbues that language with a dense mood of energetic paranoia, but Through the Window is not the work of a poet in that tongue.
None of this is to suggest that the direction Fernow has taken Prurient on Through the Window is some kind of final, inexorable decision. Last year’s Oxidation was almost two hours of unadulterated noise. Fernow’s expansion of his repertoire is not only the result of some wise decisions, but it has also provided him a new set of artistic tools that seem to be reshaping his entire process. Those tools are now available to him whenever he wishes to use them. Through the Window, though, feels like an exercise. It’s an accomplished one, and Fernow sometimes impressively commands the stylistic cues of the electronic musics he’s discovering. But the cold, calculating position of producer feels alien to Prurient as a project, where once Fernow torched his soul.