The dark ascending: Dead Space Chamber Music, ‘The Black Hours’

This is music at once vivid, immediate – and at the same time, otherworldly, almost surreal. In its heady combination of genres, approaches and sounds, the album feels both timeless and original. In the best sense, it’s a sonic trap, daring you to identify familiar elements and motifs, only to snatch them away and re-purpose them, absorb them into something wholly fresh.

Since I last wrote about them, Dead Space Chamber Music have expanded into a four-piece: Tom Bush on guitars and effects, Katie Murt on drums and percussion, Liz Paxton on cello, and Ellen Southern on vocals and psaltery. As you can see, they mirror something akin to a conventional band line-up – voice, guitar, bass, drums – but with a few instruments replaced using some kind of time-swap device. Recognising this dislocation – not quite a rock group, not quite a classical ensemble, but occupying the ‘dead space’ in between – is a great way to approach and embrace their music, which refuses to fit easily into any one category.

DSCM clearly have kindred spirits in this area – for example, musicians like cellist-composer Jo Quail, who marries orchestral compositions with looping technology, or Kate Arnold, who fashions powerful songs that feel part early music, part electronica. More firmly in the classical arena, there’s The Hermes Experiment who likewise use a ‘band’ image and format and only record contemporary works. But these are not ‘fusion’ acts, attempting to bolt different kinds of music together – it feels more like ‘diffusion’: collapsing the genre divides and drawing their chosen tools and resources from the great sprawl to make the sounds in their imaginations come to life. As a result, none of these artists sound anything like each other, or like much that has gone before.

In some respects, ‘The Black Hours’ contains more – much more – of exactly what I was hoping for. The tracks are a mix of re-arranged early music and improvisations inspired by 20th century avant-garde compositions (the band cite Ligeti and Varèse as key influences here).

There are a number of reasons why it all works seamlessly. First, the structure of the album itself. It’s meant to be heard as a whole, in one sitting; each track is introduced by a tolling bell, designed to formalise the record as a ritualistic experience. Equally, and this will please ‘old-school’ listeners like me (on my day, I can be more ‘old-school’ than an old school), there’s a symmetry to the sequencing that befits a ‘two-side’ format – it’s worth noting the album is availably on vinyl and cassette, as well as CD and digital. Each side contains a adaptation from the work of Machaut, an ‘Ion’ track (the improvisations), and a longer medley which, in each case, melds two seemingly disparate pieces together so that the joins vanish. There’s one extra outlier in the first half, ‘Bryd one Brere (Bird on a Briar)’, identified as the earliest love song to survive intact (dating from around the turn of the 14th century) – in a way, this could act as an obvious ‘single’, drawing you into the group’s approach, without laying all their cards on the table.

However, the ace up the band’s collective sleeve – leaving aside the cosmetics of how they’ve assembled the record – is surely the visceral, colossal sound they create. As the band specialise to some extent in site-specific recordings and respond to their surroundings when they improvise, I wondered what the atmosphere would be like on this, only their second full-length studio recording. Would it sterilise their mystique in any way, interfere with their sense of place?

No. Far from it. Working with long-time collaborator/producer Tom Berry (very much the ‘fifth Beatle’ in the DSCM universe), they take advantage of the studio environment to conjure up exactly the right ambience for the material. Between and beneath tracks you can detect the ambient hum, possibly of background noise, tape hiss, or even just the analogue warmth of past recording techniques. But as the tracks build, within themselves and over the whole LP, it becomes increasingly apparent how tightly-controlled the dynamics are: this should be played loud, with several of the arrangements exploding into glorious heaviness, eerie intensity.

The first track, ‘Liement me Deport’, encapsulates this unpredictable, almost metallic quality, with nothing behaving quite as you might expect: sinuous lead cello winding its way around near-industrial drumming, slight distortion in the mix – again, as though the music is breaking through from its native dimension, channelled through the band. Cries in the maelstrom made me think of the unforgettable work Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind produced for ‘The Shining’, and DSCM, to their great credit, both beguile and unsettle in a similar way.

Mentioning a horror landmark such as Kubrick’s film reminds me to mention the ‘hauntology’ in DSCM’s aesthetic. Partly, this is clear from the band’s branding and image choices, for sure. They’ve employed resolutely black and white artwork (until now, with the ‘Black Hours’ artwork incorporating a subtle, but crucial, dash of colour). This inevitably conjures up not just gothic references in film as well as music, but also hardcore punk – this recurring sense of disruption, that the ‘old music’ they play is not to be treated reverentially or preserved in aspic, but realised and re-interpreted for the present in all its gritty, gnarly glory. No smoothing over of rough edges. In this context, the ‘Icon’ sound-art tracks are shiver-inducing, Southern’s wordless vocals calling to mind possession or speaking in tongues, a lost soul amid the uncanny cacophony.

However, the album continues gathering momentum with the first of the medleys, ‘Mari Lwyd / Morfa’r Frenhines (Grey Mare / Queen’s Marsh)’. Each new piece seems to build on what’s gone before. On paper, this is a set made up of two Welsh folk pieces. On closer inspection, one of these pieces commemorates the wassailing tradition of requesting food and shelter by waving a decorated horse’s skull. As such, the song revels in macabre merriment, introducing more prominent guitar heroics, and bringing forward the pounding percussion and fearless vocal delivery from earlier tunes. While the two voices are very different, I picked up vibes of Dead Can Dance. (Any admirer of Lisa Gerrard’s uncompromising way of pushing her voice beyond beauty where the occasion demanded – especially around the time of ‘Within the Realm of a Dying Sun’ – will also find much to love here.)

It feels like it’s all leading towards the second medley – an absolute monster of a track which does as best a job it can of summarising what DSCM are all about in the space of 13 action-packed minutes. The two sections of the ‘The Pit / Dissolved in Ashes’ could not seem more different in origin. The first part is based on an actual horror soundtrack DSCM wrote for an adaptation of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, while the second half marries a Gregorian chant-style tune to lyrics adapted from the Dies Irae.

All the ingredients we have been gradually fed are now present: the freeform percussion and effects setting the unnerving scene of the torture chamber. An ever-expanding guitar line arrives with drums of such relentless heft, I felt like I could be listening to the power-electronic beats of Cut Hands or the patient terror of Espers. As you get used to the rhythm, you can hear how its steady flow mimics the swing of the deadly pendulum in Poe’s tale.

A fraction of a pause; then the entire band launch into part 2, the cavernous cello lines emerging to round out the still-furious guitar and drums, all under-pinning perhaps Southern’s most terrifyingly compelling vocal performance on the record.

A return to Machaut for the final track brings the album full circle, and allows the listener – on a cathartic high by now, I can assure you – some recovery time. The band’s all here – but dialled back slightly, as if it’s time, at last, for the ghosts to retreat back into the ether.

Feverishly recommended.


You can buy ‘The Black Hours’ in all formats – as well as physical copies and downloads of many other DSCM releases – on the group’s Bandcamp page:

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