“Dark can be used to mean the same as warm, which some people think of as the opposite of bright. But when I say dark I mean the opposite of light rather than bright (but you might think the opposite of light is heavy). As far as I’m concerned the opposite of a bright sound is a warm sound, but you might well think of a warm sound as the opposite of a cold sound. But then I call a cold tone what some people call a clear tone…”
– An excerpt from Pete’s Blog, the first hit from a Google search for “dark and sound”
Sound is under-served by the English language. Loud/quiet, tuneful/atonal, we have woefully few words to describe sound literally. Those who want to use language to describe sound are forced to make use of metaphors and imagery imported from other senses, usually sight. Sure, all uses of language are metaphorical, but the language of sound seems to suffer from an especially severe occupation by Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” To wit: “Dark” is one of the most overused and least descriptive words in music criticism, and it seems to be the first word to come up in every discussion of The Haxan Cloak’s music, even from the artist himself. Strictly speaking, all sound is just as light as it is dark, but I doubt that there is any uncertainty about which shades of darkness Bobby Krlic, the English sound artist behind The Haxan Cloak, is referring to when he sits down for an interview in a historic cemetery and professes: “I don’t find darkness depressing. Actually, I find it quite uplifting and cathartic.” His project is named after the Swedish word for “witch,” and the first title track from his new album Excavation opens with a buried snippet of sampled dialogue warning of “demons outside there.” Excavation’s cover is a stark black-and-white image depicting a floating, somewhat ineffective-looking noose descending from the heavens, and there’s supposedly an ambitious conceptual narrative about death and the afterlife running straight through from The Haxan Cloak’s self-titled debut through to Excavation, his recent release on the admittedly “dark” label Tri Angle.
Indeed, the last creak on the debut album segues seamlessly into the beginning of Excavation’s first track, and the album as a whole shares many sonic elements with its predecessor: Screeching sampled violins abound, as well as groaning cello and doom guitar. But the shadings that Krlic applies to these organic instruments have become more refined and complex. Much more interesting than any professed themes of darkness is Excavation’s thrilling sound composition, especially Krlic’s exploration of bass. Excavation amounts to a treatise on bass timbres and bass frequencies’ interaction with percussion and spare acoustic samples. That Krlic has constructed such a thrilling recording, filled with so many extremes and from such a restrained sonic palate, is astounding.
Excavation is an hourglass. There’s lots of empty sonic space on this album, but it is constantly being filled, flipped, and emptied anew. Excavation is characterized by extreme dynamic shifts, punctuated with depth charges of bass, sampled gongs, and tympani processed into seismic groans and spasms. For example, “Miste” is full of surprise, even after repeated listens. For its first couple minutes, it mulls over looped vocal particles played backwards, accelerated, chopped into hiccups and screwed into mournful brass drones. The track imperceptibly develops into a dirge of thudding percussion and a menacing, pacing growl of bass. It’s an unrushed minimal composition with almost no repetition. If this is Krlic’s statement on death, I only hope the afterlife is this thrillingly arranged.
Bass frequencies are used sparingly, but when they do appear, the sounds are always dramatic and insightful. “Mara” introduces ominous bass in the voice of a guitar in the first half, but in its second half, that familiar organic sound evaporates into a pervasive electronic sub-bass, punctuated by lashes of percussion. This is a striking juxtaposition of bass tones. In “The Mirror Reflecting,” the drums don’t boom like amplifier-assisted electronic drum machines, but rumble and explode with resonating air like infernal kettledrums. The bass frequencies on this album breathe, filling an audible space with vibrating force, so on the tracks with a more regular bass pulse, such as “Dieu,” the electronic tones sound startling flat, as if a sonic shadow has escaped its source.
In the Introduction to his book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Darby English describes Concerto in Black and Blue, a 2002 art installation by David Hammons that consisted of nothing more than three empty rooms with the lights turned off. Viewers of the artwork were given blue flashlights with which to negotiate the pitch-black space — hence, a concerto in black and blue. In a complex analysis of the work, English laments the art world’s reading of Hammond’s installation as primarily a “racially black darkness” based on the artist’s skin color and the subject matter of his previous installations. Among other things, he argues that this reading ignored the public, participatory, theatrical elements of the piece. As English points out, darkness is “ultimately discursive.” The point is that a darkened room is never just dark, because the meaning of darkness comes out of the stories we tell about it — discourses concerned not only with witchcraft and the occult, but with troubled narratives of race, power, and visibility.
As Darby English writes of Concerto in Black and Blue: “To perceive the work, one had literally to become a part of it.” The same is true of bass music. In an interview with Philip Sherburne, Krlic explains that his live performances always end with an exploration of the space’s resonant frequency: “There’s a descending high-pitched frequency and a descending low-pitched frequency at the end of the set […] I’ll be listening intently as I’m going down the tones and finding where it really pops out, and then I’ll leave it on that and kind of modulate around it for a bit, just trying to spin people out as much as I can.” At the right frequency, the bass amplifies the room’s natural vibrations, and sound seems to emanate from inside the listener’s body, rather than from an external source.
Bass, particularly the sub-bass wielded so masterfully in this album, is a seductive critical subject, because it seems to be the closest thing we have in music to sound that is not discursive, not a metaphor, but instead an inarguably physical force of nature. Every time the bass hits you in this album, it hits you in the gut. And when it hits you like that, it’s always a surprise. Opening track “Consumed” does just that with a bass drop only 45 seconds in — yes, it’s the most bowel-loosening bass drop in recent memory, but a bass drop nonetheless. We happen to be experiencing a moment when pop culture is obsessed with the bass drop. And no matter how much Krlic and compliant music scribes insist that the album’s final track “The Drop” narrates a fall into the underworld, you’ve got to allow that your reaction to the bass in this album is colored by the same rush you get in that big-tent Skrillex set. Much as every black witch’s cloak is undeniably part of a discourse that includes both Black Sabbath and Black power, The Haxan Cloak is in a dialogue with contemporary dubstep, and with Excavation, he proves that he has much to add to the conversation.