posted on 11/2012 By:
Everyday usage does great violence to language’s origins. Case in point: the term ‘avant-garde’ originally developed in the context of battlefield strategy, and later became influential in the theorizing of revolutionary political movements. Loosely translated from the French, ‘avant-garde’ means ‘advance guard’; in the context of twentieth century revolutionary movements, it was theorized that an advance guard (or vanguard) of the broader movement should be dispersed throughout the population in order to prepare the way for the full revolution to follow.
The reason I mention all of this is that the use of the term avant-garde in the context of both revolutionary politics and artistic movements has been almost universally proved by the ravages of history to contain a beautiful belief in an inevitability which never arrives. Call it a defeatist eschatology, if you like. To call oneself avant-garde, or to be referred to by others as avant-garde, suggests that one somehow represents the leading edge of an impending artistic revolution, sweeping aside the old tropes and techniques in favor of a bold vision, a brave new aesthetic that smashes the ossifications of the mainstream.
Here’s the rub: When’s the last time a band touted as avant-garde or experimental truly launched a movement of equally worthy successors? Musical evolution, it seems to me, comes in big chunky waves, with these untidy iconoclasts burning a pinpoint brighter than a supernova but then properly lapsing into a singularity. Maybe the beauty of these vanguard acts, then, isn’t so much in the revolution they promise, but in the fact that the space of newness they create is so uncompromising that no one else can subsequently occupy it.
Enter the Franco-Norwegian avant-garde black metal of Stagnant Waters. The band includes Svein Hatlevik (otherwise known as Zweizz, and also of Fleurety) on vocals, Aymeric Thomas on drums, electronics, and clarinet, and Camille Giraudeau of Smohalla on guitar and bass. Together, these three have produced an album with certain surface similarities to fellow wayward travelers in DHG, Shining (the Norwegian Blackjazz Shining, not the Swedish vanity project), Thorns, and Ulver, but their noise is nevertheless entirely their own. Stagnant Waters offers frantic punk-derived black metal, Meshuggah-inspired robo-pummel, thoroughly processed (and reprocessed) vocals, toy piano, scything tremolo guitar patterns, a thick, greasy, big beat drum march, lashes of static, Thorns-ish electro-stomping, paranoid shouting, and interference from just beyond the other side of silence. Oh, and by the way, that’s all in the opening track, “Algae.”
Given this surfeit of instrumentation and stylistic transgression, it’s basically inevitable that the principal way of discussing this bold, sprawling album will hinge on its ostensible ‘chaos’ or ‘madness’ or ‘insanity’ or some such thing. And while that’s not necessarily an unfair analytic tactic, I think it’s not quite right. The album is, once you get past the surface-level strangeness, not really accurately portrayed as a mess or a bizarre eruption of disparate ideas; instead, Stagnant Waters is a meticulously-ordered guidebook to a mansion constructed according to the laws of an impossible geometry. The form is absolutely necessary to represent the underlying content. Here a staircase juts from the ceiling; there a wall is a constantly liquefying solid; and elsewhere one door leads to two rooms with three floors and the sky is on fire and you’re underwater in a factory producing broken typewriters.
All of which is to say, attempting to accurately describe the music of Stagnant Waters is always going to be a hopelessly poor substitute for simply listening to Stagnant Waters and letting its carefully apportioned chaos seep into your every pore. Second track “CCAEP UHANRN NHON TAT” flits through freeform clarinet, skittering, vibraphone-backed jazz, and the sort of vocal and sample manipulation one would be more likely to encounter in the gleaming mercury world of experimental electronic music (think Warp, Bpitch Control, or Ad Noiseam). “Castles” is strikingly lovely in its delicate opening, and when it launches into full-on metal mode, its sprightliness of touch almost puts it in line with Animals As Leaders for a few scant minutes.
Elsewhere, the (mostly) instrumental “Bandaged in Suicide Notes” recalls the warped soundscapes of Thee Maldoror Kollective, but fed through an even more dystopian filter, and some of the jazzy midsection of “Axolotl” could honestly appear on the latest album from experimental hip-hop/dubstep/jazz artist Flying Lotus and no one would bat an eye. The ascendant fragments of a string ensemble that weave their way through the midsection in “Of Salt and Water” sound like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” misheard and recreated by malfunctioning machines.
But again, none of these words about these sounds will convince you, so if you’re so inclined, why not let the sounds make their case directly? Stagnant Waters is the single most experimental, inventive, and plainly thrilling album I’ve heard all year. It should go without saying by now that Stagnant Waters is in the business of writing avant-garde music, but I rather hope their revolution remains a revolution of one. Close your eyes and imagine them, grey and distant out there in the agrarian wilderness of a vast, nameless country. They wander from village to village, reach out person to person, hand to hand. Maybe they even know, somewhere deep and concealed within, that there’s no army at their back. No flag but their own fraying standard. No buttress between their feverish, principled, ineluctable self-expression and the great vast nothingness of nothingness. Now or never; here or nowhere; life or the long slow surrender.
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