Wrekmeister Harmonies Night of Your Ascension

[Thrill Jockey; 2015]

Styles: orchestral, doom metal, drone
Others: Marissa Nadler, The Body, Wolves in the Throne Room

Four centuries separate the murder of John Geoghan and the murder of Maria d’Avalos and Fabrizio Carafa. Geoghan, a former Catholic priest, was murdered in 2003. At the time, he was in prison in rural central Massachusetts, where he had been sent for molesting 130 boys over the span of 40 years. In August of that year, a fellow inmate named Joseph Druce cornered Geoghan in an empty cell and jammed the door shut, then tied Geoghan’s hands behind his back with a shirt, choked him with a shoe, and jumped on his ribcage until his chest collapsed before officers managed to burst in the door and pry him off. Druce was serving a life sentence for torturing and killing a gay bus driver. Geoghan’s murder fueled more public discussion about the church scandal, but perhaps its more lasting impact is a surveillance video of his murder, posted on YouTube five years later. It shows 10 police officers struggling to open the door of the cell while Druce kills Geoghan inside; it continues as they drag Druce out of the cell. The video is still online, and it’s been viewed 230,000 times.

Four-hundred and thirteen years earlier, on the night of October 16, 1590, Donna Maria d’Avalos and Fabrizio Carafa were in bed together in a palazzo in Naples, when Don Carlo Gesualdo and three men burst in the door. Gesualdo and the men tore the lovers from their sheets, then shot and stabbed them several times, also cutting Maria’s throat. Gesualdo fled to his castle nearby, but he was safe regardless, since d’Avalos was his wife and killing her for adultery was within his rights. The story would have faded into history except that Gesualdo was also one of the most confounding and visionary composers of his era, combining an off-kilter sense of harmony with a zealous sense of self-expression, both of which were groundbreaking in retrospect. The confessional anguish and lyrical violence of his madrigals, composed for five voices, amplified the myth of his bloodlust.

To admirers like Igor Stravinsky and Peter Warlock, Gesualdo was a heraldic composer with a strange biography. But Neapolitans have an even deeper obsession with Gesualdo’s legacy. When Werner Herzog on his own Gesualdo quest visited the composer’s castle in the Avellino countryside, he found a shattered old manse haunted by the locals — a bag piper, for instance, who came to wander the halls and ward off evil spirits, and an opera singer from the local asylum who thought she was Maria d’Avalos and sang through the halls. They regarded Gesualdo somewhere between a folk hero deserving veneration and a ghost requiring tribute.

On Night of Your Ascension, Wrekmeister Harmonies — a confederation of mostly Chicago-based musicians led by J.R. Robinson — plays host to Geoghan and Gesualdo. Robinson has said he intends the album to confront the theme that links the two stories: the strange fascination generated by the lurid details of their crimes. The album consists of two tracks: the 32-minute “Night of Your Ascension,” a protean composition about Gesualdo that includes an adaptation of one of his madrigals, “Ahi, Dispietata e Cruda”; and “Run Priest Run,” a dirge about Geoghan. Together, the pieces are, according to Robinson, meant to serve as “commentary on our own fascination with bloodlust and our seemingly insatiable appetite for lurid depictions of depravity.” Each aims to put the listener in the room during the murders and to make sense of why the murders fascinate us so much.

“Night of Your Ascension” begins with an organ drone and the voice of Marissa Nadler, singing layered harmonies that flow in a breathing pattern, pulsing inhalations and exhalations. Nadler’s voice feels disembodied, a kind of host uttering mournful warnings. It’s a telling way for Robinson to set the tone of the piece, a human voice, disconnected from feeling, ruthless in its approach. The piece moves on through mournful strings, oscillating synthesizers, and a black metal drone of guitar and drums; though each movement is distinct, it’s captivating to hear Robinson connect them. Some of the quieter moments are breathtaking, particularly a cello piece that melts into a choral arrangement, presumably of “Ahi, Dispietata,” that crests with a kind of shriveled, sickening crescendo. The final half of the track — 16 minutes — is consumed with bludgeoning away the swirling dread of the opening, though there is a curious warmth to the droning guitar and bass, like the flowing of blood.

“Run Priest Run” is half the length and more straightforward in its approach — an empty cell evoked by drones and metallic plinks, soon occupied by a lumbering processional and the screams of Chip King (of Portland avant-metal band The Body), an orchestrated maelstrom of violence that, like “Night of Your Ascension,” is effective in conjuring a chill chiefly because of the deadness of its gaze. Also like “Ascension,” it finds its strength in the quieter moments, where a kind of observed anxiety reigns in the coldness of the tiles and the bareness of the walls; the doom sections throw these moments in relief but don’t quite match their subtlety. Robinson’s main accomplishment is threading the piece with an overall feeling of passive observation — the engulfing moral absence in the prison cell or the blind rage of “Ascension’s” brutal finale. Perhaps he means to say that our fascination with the violent stories of Gesualdo and Geoghan incapacitates our ability to judge empathetically, to be more than spectators, to consider the souls of those we watch.

But our fascination with these particular murders — expressed in the YouTube surveillance videos and the folk stories left in their wake — reflects something more complex and even darker. As we watch corrections officers drag Druce from Geoghan’s cell, don’t we consider the blood on his hands, the slump of his body? Doesn’t the bagpiper’s obsession with Gesualdo’s castle — his need to clear it of bad spirits — say something about the very personal nature of our voyeurism and the fluid set of needs it satisfies? The high points on Ascension are the more nuanced ones, the moments that accommodate a range of feelings and reactions to a shocking act of violence. As the pieces are tamped down into pounding guitar, bass, and drums, they become something more like a soundtrack and ironically seem to do the very thing Robinson worries about: putting us inside the rooms where the murders occurred, only so we can watch with mouths agape.

Links: Wrekmeister Harmonies - Thrill Jockey

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