Russ Waterhouse 1 Minute 2 Midnight

[Drag City; 2019]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: ecofiction, fatalism, free improv
Others: Spine Scavenger, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, William Cronon

It’s reductive to view nature as little more than a place of respite or human tranquility, but it can be easy to frame it that way through the lens of field recording. The pleasantries of a wilderness soundscape (namely gentle rain or the chatter of birds and insects) lend themselves easily to the ambient warmth of a drone record or the sci-fi spirituality of New Age music. What’s often lost in that sort of well-intentioned idealism, though, is the truly sublime nature of nature. Aestheticized or romanticized depictions of nature tend to evoke serene forest scenes or cliffside views, limiting the idea of worthy ecological artwork to the scope of a transformative or healing experience, separating human experience from natural experience.

In his 1996 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” environmental historian William Cronon argued that this rift creates a problematic dichotomy. You can visit a protected wildlife reserve or national park in hopes of briefly escaping an industrialized and decaying civilization, but your habits upon returning home only contribute to that environmental destruction. Our conception of nature, he suggested, should be extended to our immediate surroundings — not compartmentalized into an abstract, faraway space.

“Hopewell,” the A-side of Russ Waterhouse’s new 1 Minute 2 Midnight, falls in line with Cronon’s thesis, offering a realistic (and pessimistic) illustration of humankind’s convergence with nature. Inspired by a hike that led Waterhouse to the intersection of Virginia’s Appomattox and James rivers, the improvised piece takes its name from the city of Hopewell’s Kepone Disaster — a 1975 scandal that revealed that the Allied Chemical Company dumped nearly 200,000 pounds of banned pesticides were dumped into the surrounding water. Nearly 30 workers were hospitalized with symptoms from heart palpitations to temporary blindness, and the neighboring rivers were shut down until 1988.

Prompted by throbbing sub-bass, glitchy crackling, and hasty kick drums that never quite fall into sync, “Hopewell” suggests impending doom rather than sylvan bliss. Insectoid chirps and sampled outdoor ambience creep into the mix as a monolithic cluster of activity, railing against the warning-siren drones that ooze from Waterhouse’s Korg. Structurally linear and increasingly violent as time passes, 1M2M’s A-side portrays the grim reality of our relationship with nature. It’s a series of intrusions and violations that only feed our anxieties regarding the apocalypse. Bass distorts and heaves. Hysterical synth leads beg for mercy. But the low end trudges on toward its eventual obliteration.

B-side “Too Many People” ventures into the landscape of post-industrial consumerism, meandering through a chopped-and-screwed field recording of a shopping mall. The squeak of shopping carts slice into the blurred murmur of passing shoppers. There’s no set locus of perspective. The listener can feel as if they’re swinging in a tote bag or scurrying like a bug across scuffed tile — it’s cubist delirium. A percussive heartbeat penetrates the mix and is slowly enveloped by an impossibly heavy layer of bass synth and, later, ramshackle drum breaks. While “Hopewell” deals with the existential terror of destroying the world while simply existing within it, “Too Many People” examines the inverse. Surrounded by strangers and self-indulgence, one is hopelessly alone.

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