Phallus Dei - Black Dawn [Dark Vinyl Records - 2017]Phallus Dei is a veteran experimental group who are often classified as industrial. They released a new album this year, titled "Black Dawn", breaking a 5 year silence. This recording is my only experience with the group thus far, though I am curious about their earlier work.
The album is not industrial in sound, though it shares a sense of gestural cinematic hugeness with post industrial ambient and noise artists like Mz.412 and Lustmord. In many ways the sound of Black Dawn is a return to pre-industrial Berlin School, soundtrack and krautrock influences, with gradually swelling and receding minimal synth and rhythm progressions over a deep river of drone. A sense of dramatic import and anticipation permeates every moment of the album.
The 10 minute opening track "Slewed" is a vast, unfolding drone with the kind of crumbled, enveloping bass distortion which I am used to hearing on drone doom metal albums. It is a churning current of vibrating, obliterating light, essence of the sun, washing over and annihilating as it passes. It particularly recalls the 90's Earth records.
The precise, dizzyingly repetitive orchestral polyrhythms and gradual build of the 2nd piece, called "Starman", are in the realm of classical minimalism like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Triplets are struck against straight eights until the syncopation creates a hypnotic disparity. As with many moments on the album, there is a crescendo into frightening, cataclysmic intensity, and this moment is punctuated by a wailing, growling saxophone, bending, winding and bleating in a sputtering, chaotic solo, a perfect contrast to the rigid rhythmic exercises beneath it.
The start contrast of this 2nd track seems to suggest each of the 5 pieces will be drastically different, but the 3rd returns to droneland, not far from the territory explored by the first piece. From there, syncopated drumset playing and staccato string chords are layered in, making for something of a combination between the 1st and 2nd pieces. The use of strings becomes more intense, melodic and emotive here than in the preceding track. A Kronos quartet-esque pair of arpeggiated chords takes the forefront of the piece, simultaneously presenting acceptance and unease, loss and triumph. It has a climactic feeling about it, yet the circular nature of the riff allows it repeat infinitely, prolonging that moment of epiphany. This climax of strings recalls the music of Godspeed You Black Emperor, though there is less of a foundation of rock instrumentation present in Phallus Dei.
The last two pieces are each of epic length, nearly 20 minutes a piece. These two are more purely ambient and zen asceticist than the rest of the album, with glimmers of ethereal voices circling through a stratospheric, windswept space. The chords here are major key, and the emotional tone soars at times into hope, liberation and peace, elsewhere reflecting the vertigo of staring at the sky. Rhythm and time dissolve. Exactly halfway through "Kreiger", a thunderous chord is struck, marking the beginning of a glacially paced repetition, a cosmic smack in the face. A few minutes later, the orchestral begins to soar again in haunting harmony behind it, and we face the sheer emptiness and size of outer space, our unassailable human loneliness. "Stigmata" is the most spacious of all, remaining nearly completely inaudible until more than 5 minutes have passed.
I am glad to see the meditative minimalism and textural beauty of drone music incorporated into more ambitious classical and soundtrack contexts. The combination of drone doom metal with an expanded orchestral and electronic instrumentation found on this album is similar to Sunn 0)))'s album "Monoliths & Dimensions", which I have long hoped would mark a new direction in the scene.
I am struck by the careful way each movement made by the group is considered and directed. Thematically, the album is a string of logically connected existential thoughts. It is existential in the way Lustmord's "The Place Where the Black Stars Hang" is/was. Indeed, what does it mean that our Earth is surrounded by such unforgiving, unfeeling, impassible blankness? Nature's hugeness and immovability will be experienced. It is unavoidable. "Black Dawn" is a quality reminder of this, a soundtrack for our recent near-total solar eclipse.Josh Landry