Reinier van Houdt | Igitur Carbon Copies
Hallow Ground (LP/DL)
Reinier van Houdt’s Igitur Carbon Copies is not so much one album as two – what is ostensibly a somewhat heavy-handed exercise in gothic aesthetics, hides beneath its surface a nuanced exploration of compositional structure that, like many complex works, only reveals its true beauty with the application of patience and time.
At first listen it might be tempting to write it off as an emulatory album of gothic aficionado – and in many ways it is – yet there is far more at stake than it initially seems. Reach past its inescapably spooky veneer, and you’re liable to discover a surprising ‘classical’ composition, with the composer voicing specific narrative devices via the building blocks of traditional gothic storytelling. Breathy whispers, sombre drones, distant bells and bleeps are all used to not only create a suitably sinister atmospheric bed, but as a means of investigating and unpicking the melodic and structural relationships of the work as a whole. Static, one of several such devices, is articulated throughout the album in the differing bursts that punctuate most tracks, a motif that interplays with equally recurrent melodic stabs reminiscent of a touch-tone handset. What begins as the violent interruptions of radio-static, mutates over time into the gentle hiss of filtered noise, rising and falling in length, frequency, and amplitude.
With the work inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s unfinished gothic tale IGITUR, the album summons not only the requisite gloomy atmosphere, but invokes the author’s text itself – an inclusion of which, in all honesty, I struggled with. Whatever the existing merits of Mallarmé’s writing, its framing by such an explicitly referential musical accompaniment risks removing any of the subtlety present in either music or speech. At times, Van Houdt’s otherwise excellent composition feels subservient to the text to such a degree that it is reduced to being simply a signifier of its theme, rather than an artistic effort in its own right. Entwined with the far less abstract entity that is Mallarmé’s writing, what is at first a clever use of gothic tropes to construct a complex and multi-layered sound-world, risks simply ending up as pastiche. Likewise, the inclusion of a well-known – and thematically disorienting – David Lynch quote seems incongruous, at home neither with Van Houdt’s or Mallarmé’s own contributions.
Reservations concerning the spoken elements aside, the composition utilises a wonderful narrative arc, and it is this – the consideration of the album as a whole, rather than a critique of its composite parts – that elevates the work to such a high degree. What begins as a wealth of murky, harmonium-like drones, whispered voice, and distant sporadic percussion, soon broadens into a world of delicate synthesis. It is intensely atmospheric, yet rendered with a certain economy – a strangely articulate soundscape arranged with understatement and precision. The gentle, unaffected production allows the recurring static, or the occasional tonal flurry, to stir the listener at each new burst, pulling them from an otherwise unbroken reverie. If the first half is withdrawn to the point of being nearly purely atmospheric, the faintly glacial ’Descent’ reveals a delicate, almost lonely melody that serves as not only the longest track, but the compositional heart of the album as a whole.
From this, ‘Riemann Angels’ introduces further variance, violins and electronic percussion usher in a more traditionally avant-garde section that offers a certain counterpoint to the murky amorphous drones of the first few tracks. ‘Murmurations’ with its extended bells, is almost a work of ‘classic’ ambient music, stripped of most of the sombre gloom that permeates the rest of the album. And though things return once more to dense atmospherics towards ‘Igitur Carbon Copies’ final few tracks, the introduction of reverb-drenched strings summon a final, forlorn and sombre tone. If I have admittedly struggled with the monotonic vocals thus far, they finally begin to make sense on the penultimate ‘Tomb Ectoplasm’ – perhaps I at last give in to a previously overlooked charm, but here the voice seems to predicate the composition, casting the proceedings as a piece of experimental story-telling, albeit one very much embedded in the gothic tradition.
Overall Reinier van Houdt has constructed a proficient, emotive, and highly articulate composition, though one that demands a certain acceptance from its listener. The filtering of his compositional materials through such an explicit gothic prism – whilst entirely fitting the text upon which it is based – requires you to submit to its more thematic excesses. Once this is achieved, however, the album reveals itself as multi-layered and sonically rewarding experience, a celebration of structure and narrative.