Mist House

[Spectrum Spools; 2011]

Styles: cosmiche, synthwave, innervisions, soundtrack, church
Others: Tangerine Dream, Harmonia, Kraftwerk, Emeralds, OPN, Dolphins Into The Future

Call it affect, the way music makes a physical, emotional impact on your senses, unfolding emotions, moods, and feelings over quick successive minutes in a manner unparalleled in the other arts. Or call it a bodily relationship to sound, a physical and emotional giving-in to the transformative power of the sonic caress. Such features are evident to some extent in all music, but some styles foreground them more than others. Metal follows Wagner’s lead in its brutal, all-consuming attack. Dub and its derivatives pull rugs from under listeners’ feet, destabilizing and deterritorializing. Then there’s the kind of cosmic electronic music — drawing on Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and Harmonia and Eno, and finding its contemporary outlet in the swirling visions of Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, and Dolphins Into The Future — that tends to favor innervisions.

When this video to Emeralds’ “Genetic” was posted up on the internet, it captured something vital about the music of these and other electronic artists. The sight of cells growing, splitting, and mutating, of growth and decay, flows and pulses, the rhythms of life, frantic activity and ambient stillness, anticipated, albeit on a more modest scale, the notorious “creation/evolution” section of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Importantly, it reasserted the slipperiness of the organ/machine split too often connected to electronic music in the wake of Kraftwerkian robots. More than just affect, the video seemed to suggest, this music was the very soundtrack to your existence.

So we should not be overly surprised that the duo Mist (comprising John Elliott of Emeralds and Sam Goldberg of Radio People) should opt for a similar life-soundtracking strategy with House, their superb album for Elliott’s Spectrum Spools imprint. Here is a beautifully wrought work of plateaus, peaks, valleys, dips, and troughs, streams flowing into tributaries, reservoirs gathering and emptying, suns exploding, a less operatic, less classical, still awe-inspired Tree of Life. As the great American poet Jim Harrison wrote in “The Theory and Practice of Rivers,” “It is not so much that I got/ there from here, which is everyone’s/ story: but the shape/ of the voyage.” That’s a bit how these recordings feel, like shapes of journeys you can sense but not see.

Imagination runs riot while connected to House. The anticipation of approach, the dream of Utopia, a passing, an elegy for something lost. What is omitted is what comes between the anticipation of Utopia and the fall of Eden: violence, rape, plunder, betrayal, the violence of colonization and empire. These are empty empires, fantasy lands, moving forward into the imaginary, backward into memory, which, after all, is also imaginary. There is a vast emptiness at the heart of this music, an emptiness covered over with warm mist, the hazy comfort of forgetfulness. Or so it seems at first.

The teeming and activity to be found in much of Emeralds’ music finds itself simulated in the first two tracks of House. The frenetic opening track, the Kraftwerk-friendly “Twin Lanes,, comes at you with motoric insistence, its pistons and gears gleaming in the sun. “I Can Still Hear You Voice” has a similarly persistent undertow, but it’s already become clear by this point that the chugging arpeggios are mere engines undergirding glacial, drifting sound clouds that slip, slide, and glide toward more ephemeral modes of bliss. It’s a bliss that could be aligned to religious awe (cue Malick again, perhaps), the calm drone of “Daydream” suggesting itself as electronica’s answer to Gregorian chant, or, perhaps more accurately, the eerie permanence of the church organ.

However, there are more secular, earthier textures on offer here. As well as taking us on a tour around the cosmos and our heads, Elliott and Goldberg also seem to want to take us on a tour of their equipment (mainly vintage synthiana from Moog, Roland, Korg, and DSI). It’s like spending a day at the electro-spa and getting the benefit of all the treatments on offer. Perhaps, ultimately, that’s what this music does for us: allow us to bathe in the amniotic luxury, pamper ourselves with sound, and take guilty pleasure in sonic purification rituals.

Saturation is at work on various levels here. There’s the feeling of being soaked, of floating through liquid, but also of being showered by spent fireworks or soft rain. Then there’s the way the instruments bleed into each other, saturating each other and changing the color of particular sounds. To hear “I Can Still Hear Your Voice” is to hear-feel the way one shape emerges out of another, to imagine trippy animations and mutating organisms. But, more than that, it’s a whole synesthesia, an envelopment and confusion of all the senses.

Elliott and Goldberg’s virtuosity, taste, and control of their equipment are what ultimately persuade one that there’s more on offer here than “mere” pleasure, more than just laying back, soaking it up, and forgetting the world. There’s a sense of one’s relationship to what’s going on, an awareness of the trickery and seduction, of the Sirenic pull of the synths. There’s the knowledge of wanting-to, of giving-in, and in that knowledge resides one’s non-passivity. Ultimately, there’s a sense of meeting oneself on the way back from some revelatory experience, of being pushed and pulled and asked to take note of music’s affect, of the awe it inspires.

Links: Spectrum Spools

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