How can one talk about death and eternity without actually saying a word about it? Roly Porter, formerly one half of dubstep duo Vex’d along with Jamie Teasdale/Kuedo, tries to answer with Kistvaen, his fourth studio album and the first in four years. Marking his return to Subtext Recordings after the previous Third Law was licensed by Tri-Angle (RIP), Kistvaen takes its name from a kind of granite tomb typical of Dartmoor, in southwest England. The six tracks comprising the album were originally composed for an AV performance with visual artist MFO, presented across various festivals. The recorded album is the result of various rehearsals/performances and studio sessions, resulting in an evocative and spine tingling experience even without the immersive video projections and light design.
The concept underlying this work sees Porter speculating “on the burial site as a mirror, or a gate in time”. There is yet again an otherworldly (literally) sci-fi vein that links this record to the entire Porter oeuvre, although this time things get more sinister than ever. Kistvaen is built upon field recordings made on site, which makes it a site-specific work; ultimately, though, it trespasses the physical and conceptual boundaries of its genesis to become a universal sonic meditation. In the words of the press release, “this is otherworldly sonic necromancy”.
Themed around death, burial and rituals – constant elements accompanying mankind since the dawn of time – Kistvaen draws a parallel between the Neolithic and today, and the resulting score sounds accordingly atemporal and eternal. Times may change, the relentless race of progress and evolution may go forward, even the landscape is not the same as it used to be; but certain experiences make us not so different from our ancestors. Death and mourning are among such universal experiences. The connection with the past also lives through the involvement of three singers: Mary-Anne Roberts – from medieval Welsh music duo Bragod, Ellen Southern – of Bristol’s Dead Space Chamber Music group, and Phil Owen – a singer and researcher in vocal traditions.
Kistvaen is ancestral and tumultuous in its restrained but constant gurgle. Listening to the tragic, solemn opener “Assembly” – with echoes of distant soundscapes overarched by a voice that could be as much agonizing wail as ecstatic arcane chants – I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Conrad’s line “The horror, the horror” from Heart of Darkness. Indeed, listening to Kistvaen is like jumping into a dark abyss. The album is pervaded by mystery and stillness, just like the cover artwork, and yet there is enough space for rays of light – in the guise of synths, strings and horns – to breach the darkness. Brace yourself for the horror industrial-drone of “Burial”, or the sacred aura of “An open door”, the pain sprouted by each of its piano notes amplified by arcane singing and majestic strings. “Inflation field” is the soundtrack for the souls of the dead being invoked in pitch black fields, while “Passage” is, put simply, a masterpiece. An almost 15 minute long spellbinding synthesis of all the different shades of the Roly Porter sound, featuring electroacoustic passages, dark ambient, drone, then sci-fi synth, bursts of noise, and disquieting stillness again. You have already given up to Kistvaen’s hypnotic power, but then comes the title track with that delightful contrast between harshness and gracious piano fading out and slowly taking you back to the here and now.
It is heavy, it is haunting, even frightening, but at the end of the tunnel it is cleansing and purifying like a pagan ritual.
Though its menacing atmosphere and harsh sonic texture may lead to think of this album as an exercise in desolation, it surprisingly ends up lighting a bonfire to keep you company. Be it enjoyed with mysterious spirits and roving entities summoned from the past, or be it a catalyst for empathy towards any human being to have ever set foot on planet Earth, the inescapable sensation is that of sharing a communal catharsis through hearing.
Its darkness may be daunting, but the reward is well worth getting lost in Kistvaen‘s psychoacoustic burial-scape.