by Massimo Pupillo and Daniel O Sullivan (House of Mythology 2016)
An eerie fugual cascade, like a choir arriving from a point beyond death heralds this remarkable album from Massimo Pupillo and Daniel O Sullivan. The music rumbles with the primal forces of the earth while resounding with something both celestial and ominous. Laniakea – A Pot of Powdered Nettles is a tribute to seminal artist, permaculturalist and Coil collaborator, Ian Johnstone, who Pupillo and O Sullivan befriended, worked with and been inspired by as members of Zu and Ulver respectively and who helped set in motion much of the thinking, resourcefulness and spiritualism behind England’s true (reverse and) counter culture, based as much of it was at 147, Tower Gardens Road, Tottenham.
The first epic composition, The Contagious Magick of The Superabundance honours its title in a suitably majestic fashion. The land and air seem to shift about and beneath you, as if the sounds were urging or pressing the body or spirit to rise. A combination of Bass, Voice, Elka Crescendo 303 and M-tron keyboards, Viola, wind and the dark angelicism of Hildegard von Bingen allows these musical crests and tones to move in a truly tectonic fashion, as areas reminiscent of the outer reaches of Dead Can Dance’s early music combines with the very spirit of air. As the forces gather something more than beautiful manifests; a form is in fact defining itself, or allowing itself to be defined, as we listen, with the music and soundscaping sculpting feelings and responses to the death of a beloved friend, shaping them into a kind of Aural Golem. The four pieces on the album are regarded by its makers as ‘Heart songs’ into which they have poured their joy, confusion, grief and philosophy. The resultant transcendent and transformative gift can do nothing but touch you as you realise how much they felt and owed to and for their friend. Loss is an ocean in constant motion and although these pieces end at certain times, the life and power of them continue. They are in a very real way, mastering the electric and making it truly elemental.
The second song, The Sky is an Egg, after a corralling of sharp and mutating breezes, achieves form and attitude with low electric guitar strikings. Sharp synth lines mutate as the incantatory lyric is intoned. ‘The Sky is an Egg..With time presiding.. The sylvan night.. Pyracanthus protecting..’ Here are mystical codes and ancient greetings invoked to honour the passing of truly inspirational forces. Music as prayer, as sacred site, as communion. The passing of Leonard Cohen reminds us that although he could be summarised as the most sophisticated if perhaps conventional of rock music’s balladeers, what marked him out, as has been noted by the great Heathcote Williams, is the notion of transcendence that featured in all his work. And so it is here, as Pupillo and O Sullivan call through the musical mist to their dead friend, praising time’s renewal of the sky that houses the living and the dead with statements that unite all levels of existence;
‘When you are in amber/ when you are in dust..Zone in parallel rose/Sewn in parallel rows..’
The statements and abstracted expressions of them, are effortlessly moving as we are taken beyond the limits of accepted language, with words capturing or attempting to capture what music does in an instant of mood or of note. We compose and restructure our grief through the use of any means necessary or open to us and create a new way to feel and to be.
Zone in Parallel Rose is the title of the third Heartsong. It skitters and scars with a merciless low drive of strings, while high pitched musical tendril like tones claw and graffiti the space around listening. Spells are literally pieced together as phrases and harmonies collide to create and unify this new arena for expression. Here, the ‘tipping on axis’ gives way to a ‘red ripe seed’ that creates ‘flowers to form something in sleep.’ The ‘penetration of the mind’ occurs when the journey between where you come from and where you are going is riven with a sense of loss and renewal.
Loss, in the west at least, is too often marked by a standard social occasion. This album, stemming as it does from bereavement on a personal level becomes a greater statement and one shareable with all manner of audiences. Grief is as constant a part of nature as the air that we breathe and the constant interelation of life and death finds echo and expression in these pieces. We move around, between and because of it, all the while inhaling and transmuting it and as it enters and fuses with what we are and what we hope to be, either in terms of ourselves as a whole or simply in relation to the forces around us, we learn to accomadate what many see as a horror, but which in effect is merely the frame for the vibrancy there in us all. The album is therefore, to my way of thinking, achieving something far more impressive than other music encountered on a purely experiential level. It is, through the very purety of its intention and resultant statement showing the love of the life that has passed and the essence that can still be maintained.
Closing piece Calcite, uses all stated instruments, along with Bamboo flute, Fingerbells, Chimes, Dictaphone, Uher 4400, Gamelan and more importantly, ‘Francois and the feuding cats of Nunhead’ to deliver us somewhere approaching a state of grace. As the rages and waves of response, anger and grief achieve understanding through an acknowledgement of the value of Ian Johnstone and all he inspired among his social and artistic circle, a new power blisters forth. Sounds and textures occur that lift the music from the CD player into the air and then through it. The artistry scours a hole into which we can see glimpses and impressions of everything made for the ear.
In 1969, Pete Townshend referred to King Crimson’s groundbreaking first album In the Court of The Crimson King, as ‘an uncanny masterpiece.’ The same phrase can be applied to Laniakea – A Pot of Powdered Nettles, as its conjoining of light and darkness, of the affirmative and the ominous, of the bewildering and the profound, achieves a conversation between the parts of us that remember the dead and the parts that are still living with them. This is the power and usefulness of art. It should wound us as much as it soothes us. It must be of us and ready to change. In the twisting field of experience we all walk through, the nettle and thorn of loss implied in this album’s title are broiled and alchemically changed. We become the music in its truest sense, as the most effective and affecting areas of art surely require a degree of commitment. Listening is not passive. It is an engagement on the most basic level if it is to classed as listening at all. And listening breeds empathy and connection. That is what lays at the heart of all drama after all and which allows that field and therefore art and literature reflecting its outer reaches to join, fuse and become music. To progress in unity as a society of culturally informed and sensitive beings we should learn to share each others pain and successes and not just reflect on our own separate glories and trials. Music, if coming from the heart as these pieces clearly do, offers that possibility. It must and should tear us open. And so we must watch as our blood turns to gold.
David Erdos 19/1/17