Vessel Queen of Golden Dogs

[Tri Angle; 2018]

Styles: experimental chamber electronica
Others: Forest Swords, Ben Frost, Sinjin Hawke & Zora Jones

Recently, it’s become something of a trend for artists formerly associated with club- or dance-oriented music to move away from anything with a steady or danceable rhythm, and toward sounds that refuse genre and incorporate the ambient (in all senses). It’s often presented, in press releases at least, as a move away from populism and toward serious art status. This, however, is an assumption worth calling into question. That’s not to criticize the music that emerges, of course, but to bear in mind as a prefatory note that a trajectory is not a telos.

Sebastian Gainsborough (Vessel) follows this path on his latest album, Queen of Golden Dogs. Having said that, though, the grinding electro-acoustic beats of 2014’s Punish, Honey and the deconstructed techno of 2012’s Order of Noise was never music that would sit comfortably in any mainstream club environment. Queen of Golden Dogs goes further, mixing early music and Baroque orchestral styles with maximalist electronica — together (on the same track) and separately (alternating styles between tracks).

On his album Après, Iggy Pop drew a fundamental distinction between music associated with breath and with heartbeat, and that interplay, the drawing in of breath as well as beat, is in evidence here. This contrast is also a finding of the third thing, the interstitial. This “space between” is an obsession of continental theory, and on the album (or at least in its track titles), Gainsborough throws in, for good measure, literary references aplenty. The result is an ambitious undertaking in which Gainsborough’s erudition is on full display — a bride stripped bare by her listeners, even.

Some of these allusions are obscure, but others are recognizable — for example, “Argo (for Maggie),” a clear reference to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a work of “autotheory” about the author’s relationship with her genderfluid partner and her pregnancy. Nelson’s work can be overwrought and self-centered (an everpresent danger, too, in experimental music), striving for poetic effect and a sense of significance in its mix of the self-involved confessional register, sexuality, theory, and poetry. Remedios Varo’s visual work, which Gainsborough has chosen as the cover art, seems more appropriate for the album — a mixture of subtlety and melodrama, a Gothic that eschews blood and thunder, a surrealist vibe that yet refuses obvious Freudianisms and gestures toward a private language of the mystical.

Another identifiable reference, on “Good Animal (for Hannah),” is to Hannah Arendt and her critique of humans as “animal laborans;” contra Marx, Arendt theorizes that because labor is necessary for the maintenance of life, it brings us closest to animals. Therefore, to place ultimate significance on labor (as Marx does) is to denigrate ourselves, to make ourselves slaves of necessity, to relegate all non-laboring activities to frivolousness and consumption (this, of course, is a dim view of non-human animals!).

Gainsborough has previously discussed physical intensity in music (counterintuitively, as a contrast to club sounds), and there’s something of the hum/animal in his extreme sensations. Queen of Golden Dogs is not physical in such an obvious way as Punish, Honey. It’s more overtly cerebral, even at times ethereal, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t feel like an engagement with this principle.

Speaking of the physical — of our locatedness — the album emerges from an 18th-month period isolated in rural Wales (which could also be read as a self-imposed absence from sites of labor). The retreat to a rural hideaway has been a staple of alternative music since 60s folk. In more recent times, it’s unfortunately and indelibly associated with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. The rustic retreat is often understood as leading to authenticity — which we don’t encounter here — but it also speaks to self-reflection, which is more in evidence on the album, if in an identity that is known as fractured and multiple.

There is certainly something of landscape in the work, something of the feel of Purcell’s Arcadian melancholy, an echoing around hills and along the valleys of a “green and pleasant land” (noting that Wales is not England). Gainsborough has referenced Tove Jansson, whose Scandinavian childrens’ fantasia is deeply rooted in the meaning of place and in world-building. And then there’s the troll under the bridge, a Brexit that threatens both to break apart “Great Britain” and to reproduce austerity’s (lack of) Satanic mills right up to the impregnable borders. Without wanting to overlabor the concept, the distinction between the gentler, orchestral passages and the rupturing beats doesn’t seem unrelated to these two conflicting “United Kingdoms.”

Having said that, Gainsborough has questioned whether the political can be present in (Western) music at all, championing instead the idea of music that breaks expectations and makes people think. On that note, Queen of Golden Dogs is undeniably interesting, breaking from both Gainsborough’s previous work and any familiar musical tropes or patterns expected by the ear.

The cabin in the woods is also a horror trope, and that may be no coincidence here. While there’s nothing of the genre’s gore, its sense of unease, with quiet moments alternating with jump scares, is a touchpoint (and if we are to include the political, Brexit is certainly a suspenseful horrorshow). The album also features the vocals of Olivia Chaney, folk singer and member of Offa Rex, whose rich folk horror threads its way throughout.

Ultimately, despite Gainsborough’s troubling of dance, of the physical, of expectations, the most successful (and most fascinating) tracks are those that engage with the dancefloor, or at least with rhythm, rather than do away with it completely. “Paplu (Love That Moves the Sun)” is the keystone, an extraordinary maximalist yet pointillist piece extending close to 10 minutes that combines tragic opera with a relentless PC Music beat aesthetic.

Queen of Golden Dogs, then, consciously resists understanding, a position that Gainsborough admires in his source material. Closer “Sand Tar Man Star (For Aurellia)” buzzes and hums with ghost voices, and we’re left with a chorus of voices in our heads… and in our bodies.

Most Read