Damien Dubrovnik Vegas Fountain

[Alter/Posh Isolation; 2015]

Styles: dissonance, ultrasonic power electronics, industrial cruelty play
Others: Prurient, Pan Sonic, Alberich, Jason Lescalleet

When I first heard the opening seconds of opening track “On Its Double,” I laughed. Not because hearing ear-splitting power electronics with incessant mosquito ultrasonics by Damien Dubrovnik (Posh Isolation label co-owners Loke Rahbek and Christian Stadsgaard) is it in itself funny, but because I am one to automatically treat the art of an album as a visual metaphor for its content, and Vegas Fountain pulled a wicked double-take on me with its dull-as-dishwater white cover. It was downright bizarre at first, as I was overwhelmed with a feeling of uncertainty and confusion, but as I listened and thought about it — and its cryptic, sterile titles and uncanny pleasures — I began to wonder what linked these bland fractals to such a piercing record, what role this deliberate dissonance played for it. And it later made me wonder why I enjoyed the album so much, even though it felt at times painful or frightening to listen to.

“On Its Double” originates from The Theatre And Its Double, a work by Antonin Artaud that sought to establish a new framework of theater focused on sensory experience — “a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought.” From this, the Theater of Cruelty evolved, a kind of avant-garde theater that attacked the audiences’ senses, staging immersive, chaotic performances to provoke intense emotional responses.

Likewise, the Bellagio Fountains homepage brought this delightful bit of opulence to my attention:

A refreshing addition to your entertainment options, the Fountains of Bellagio were destined to romance your senses. Take in a complimentary Las Vegas show of water, music and light thoughtfully interwoven to mesmerize its admirers. All for your amusement, the most ambitious, choreographically complex water feature ever conceived amazes against the beautiful backdrop of Las Vegas’ lavender sky. Each dynamic performance from the Fountains collection is unique in its expression and interpretation. Fall in love with the stunning nature of this unprecedented aquatic accomplishment…

It becomes difficult to distinguish at some points the difference between thrill and fear. A violent action in a performance should grab us, shake us from complacency; in Artaud’s text, he specifies it isn’t literally physical violence, so much as a spiritual agitation, an expression to remind us of life’s perpetual conflict, that “everything in creation rises up and asserts itself against our appointed rank.” Light and sound are used unconventionally in his form of theater to strike a balance between pure spectacle and loaded meaning, assaulting the senses in a precise way. Non-verbal emotional expression catalyzes self-reflection, the unearthing of subconscious impulses and anxieties. Artaud called the theater a place to “drain abscesses collectively.” This album has a lot of very hi-pitched squeals.

When I witness the Vegas fountain, I am awed by its grandeur and geometry, as well as its power, its towering presence — not to mention its indulgence: I bemoan the pointlessness of wasting such a necessary resource in a desert state for a dumb and superficial purpose. The fountain thrives on intimidation, an aggressive action on the senses that provokes a near-immediate response. We may at once feel catharsis, awe, anger, and more, all caused by abstract shapes of billowing white noise. It’s not quite a cruelty play, but it’s definitely an assault on the senses.

The equivalence is apparent. Noise music’s capacity for near-psychedelic sensory overload is one of its chief appeals, as anyone who has seen any live power electronics concert can attest. Here, Damien Dubrovnik attempt something akin to a cruelty play through the careful staging and control of noise, a navigation of extreme sources through strict parameters designed to evoke latent meaning. The use of such ordinary symbols for the album art — water, white towels, glass — in contrast to the intense sonics of this record is symbolic engraving, a conversion of that dissonance from an “unprecedented” and confusing experience into a recognizable form. On its own, the music has rhythm and a prickly, pinched idea of melody guiding it, but the beats feel more like they exist to hammer you in place than to inspire dancing.

Damien Dubrovnik’s primary form on Vegas Fountain is bodily anxiety. From the lyrics, moaning out “upper and lower lips,” to titles describing generic decor and a range of surgical-industrial noises, Vegas Fountain alludes to some kind of oral surgery or similar. In particular, the title “Fingers Into Majorelle,” which at first reads as crudely sexual, could instead refer to the vibrant hue of a blue latex glove. Appropriately, some of the noises sound like drills — “Upper Lip’s” punishing scrapes are phased and isolated deep inside the skull, to the point where hearing it is comparable to receiving pilled-up surgery — but this notion is not literally adhered to throughout. Rahbek and Stadsgaard are trying to articulate an inexact woe, a grim awareness of the body’s fragility, and employ a range of different sounds to do so. Some are almost pleasant, but they no doubt come bundled with something deeply unpleasant.

Maybe I went with “dentist” for a reason. Maybe that was my subconscious telling me that this dichotomy produces a very specific feeling of anxiety, like the kind I get at the dentist’s office, and it directs me to precisely why I feel that way: I am placed into a sterile environment, which I assume is safe, but controlled pain is inflicted on me. I am made aware of my own pain threshold, and I am made aware I am decaying. In this private moment, I experience a subtle and profound realization of mortality. I am now made to fear the harmless decor of a waiting room, because I know what waits for me in the next room.

Damien Dubrovnik’s music embodies these kinds of experiences deftly, balancing their songs with just enough extreme sound and soft ambience to feel oppressive but not unapproachable. They are dynamic, if aimed ultimately to depress and terrorize, but with the same passion of a brutal tragedy. “See Water Glass” uses up all the musique concrète available at an existential and depressing corporate park, building a wash of florescent lights, idling air conditioners, and metal feedback loops, a play to negate our ennui by way of aestheticizing the dull, artificial sounds we are surrounded in, constantly, unavoidably. “Matching Window Blinds” then sifts through these layers to reveal a careful counterpoint of brittle hi-pitched tones, like the fading aches of recent pain. They segue into softer tones of grey, but the shrill squeak perseveres like a music box that needs to be oiled. There’s a scarce amount of spoken word on the album, but it’s a mostly barked- and coughed-out list of paranoias; in keeping with the album’s focus on inexact expression, it’s just there to agitate.

“Vegas Fountain,” which closes the record, is a melancholic slow-build of airhorn chords, strikes on metal, and a rush of white noise. Gradually, it amasses a reverie, before collapsing to a sporadic cloud of oversaturation. It consolidates their various setpieces into a stunning last statement, emphasizing both their skill as arrangers and the attitude behind their outbursts, both of which are crucial in giving them value. It’s not just using noise to upset or harmony to relax. It’s all about the careful navigation of the two, between “cleansing” and “abrasive,” like sticking your head in the Bellagio’s jet stream to cool off. This is empathetic theater and the musical equivalent of exposure therapy. It’s painful, sure, but “even in toothache, there is enjoyment.”

Links: Damien Dubrovnik - Alter/Posh Isolation

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