People of the North The Caul

[Thrill Jockey; 2016]

Styles: free-jazz, ambient, drone, noise
Others: Oneida, The Necks, Supersilent, Yellow Swans

For People of the North, music is an extra sense. Not simply a medium apprehended by a sense (i.e., hearing), but rather a means of giving voice to what can’t be communicated or comprehended in any other way. On The Caul, the duo’s fifth album, they ostensibly use it to shape their own distinctive brand of anarchic, noise-influenced free-jazz. Yet at the same time, they use it to pass beyond the simple face of their everyday lives, to signify the more complex feelings and realities hidden beneath this surface.

In other words, the album’s name — The Caul — is entirely apt, since in folklore a caul is a stretch of amniotic tissue that remains wrapped around a newborn baby’s head upon his or her entry into the world. Occurring in fewer than one in 80,000 births, its presence is for some meant to augur not only good fortune, but also the ability to “shift between logical and liminal states,” to comprehend more of reality than what can be given by the dogma of reason alone. And really, when listening to the three sprawling expanses of drums and organ that comprise the album, it soon becomes clear that they were mainly the product of intuition and impulse, and not of pre-established conventions and models.

With the opening title track, this intuition and impulse manifests itself in the form of huge drifts of rumbling organ and rampant bursts of jittery percussion. At almost all points of the 20-minute running time, it defies the listener to anchor herself in the duo’s wayward interplay using any kind of preconceived notion of how music should unfold or be structured. Because she lacks such a template or guide to what Kid Millions and Bobby Matador are doing, there arises the impression that they’re not saying anything meaningful in a conventional or codified sense, and that in order to understand the waves and peaks of low-end droning, she simply has to feel them while they wash over her.

Most music could be argued to rely more on feelings than logic for its comprehension, yet with The Caul this reliance is made much more explicit and much more the basis of the record’s underlying concept. The aforementioned title track pulses, expands, and contracts in complete disregard for any clear impression of direction, confusing the audience as to whether its drum rolls and mid-point sextuplet are just getting started or are in the process of winding down. This ambiguous sense of where exactly the piece might be heading is deepened by the fact that everything in it — every improvised part and every brief flourish — changes so frequently and without prior warning. Nothing at all is signposted, and because nothing is signposted, we the audience can’t invoke analogous pieces and forms of music that might make sense of the track, that might slot it into a mold that would explain and predict it.

And because its fluid, chaotic structure deprives it of pre-existing schemas against which it could be compared and deciphered, it becomes what Millions and Matador intended it to be: a replication of “experiences that are difficult to express […] through rational process[es].” Yet what should be made clear is that the experience of an oozing, molten track like “Surfacing” isn’t difficult to express, because it refers to something supernatural or spiritual. No, its trails of fluctuating organ and restless drum diddles are difficult to express because they’re far too anarchic and complex to conceptually break down into constituent elements. They’re too restless and too erratic to ever settle into familiar, easily communicated patterns, and as such, they prevent most people from ever taking the trouble to deconstruct them into abstract parts.

As a result, The Caul becomes as much a comment on the habitual laziness and unwillingness of the human mind to push itself as on what we cannot possibly perceive by the senses. Moreover, slippery tracks like “Surfacing” and “A Real Thing You Can Know” are also a rejection of the simplistic human tendency to categorize objects according to binary opposites. When the hazy “Surfacing” oscillates repeatedly from one pitch-shifted chord to another, and when soupy electronic signals waveringly rise up only to disappear back into its fluid morass, it’s effectively frustrating any attempt the listener might make to confidently say the notes she’s hearing are categorically one pitch — one thing — or the other. Similarly, in the subdued, nearly funereal dirge of “A Real Thing You Can Know,” the keys played by Matador remain sustained yet also veer subtly into different notes and frequencies, once again stymieing any attempt to use a single label, to pretend they have properties belonging to one category and one category only.

The upshot of this preying upon human cognitive limitations is the creation of a decidedly intimidating and ominous atmosphere. Both “Surfacing” and “A Real Thing You Can Know” are steeped in a very unsettled ambience, with the indeterminacy of Matador’s looming organs and Millions ricocheting drums worrying the audience into the uncomfortable realization that they don’t really know what’s happening and therefore can’t definitively say they’re safe from some nasty surprise. Still, given that Millions and Matador have been playing together for around 25 years, it shouldn’t really come as any surprise that their latest album as People of the North is anything but nasty. Not only is it a completely spellbinding dive into oceanic noise, but its complete evasion of commonplace, idealized forms and structures somehow makes the experience of it purer, as if it prevents all extraneous abstractions and paradigms from ever getting in the way of its brute reality.

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