- "Dark music for dark times" is how Houndstooth describes its latest release, a 25-track compilation inspired by T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." The 1925 poem, one of the 20th century's most celebrated, is said to allude to what Eliot saw as the wreck of post-World War I Europe—a sour political climate supposedly reflected in today's Trumpism and post-Brexit politics. Artists from across the electronic music spectrum were asked to consider the poem, in particular the phrase "In death's dream kingdom," to create an "audiovisual artefact," comprised of artwork by Jazz Szu-Ying Chen, artist-written texts accompanying each track and music that spans more than two hours.
"The Hollow Men" deals with a number of grave themes: life and death, spirituality, morality, the end of the world. In Death's Dream Kingdom is an equally heavy listen. It starts with an 11-minute drone from the bass player Otto Lindholm and wallows in the darkness from there, with impressionistic pieces from artists like Koenraad Ecker, Abul Mogard and Shapednoise painting in shades of grey and black. Similarly, Kangding Ray, Yves De Mey and ASC contribute grippingly dark soundscapes, but offer no clear links to the poem. Some hints, however abstract, can be found elsewhere. We Will Fail's "Carbon Trail," a highlight, flails about as if hopeless. Spatial's "Haunted Dance Hall" and Lanark Artefax's "Styx" both have sputtering rhythms that never quite come to fruition, basking in the poem's purgatorial spirit.
A few artists reference the text of "The Hollow Men" directly. Hodge borrows the phrase "Sunlight On A Broken Column" for an eerie bit of broken techno, while Gazelle Twin invokes the poem's famous closing lines—"This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper"—over a heart-palpitating beat. It's one of the compilation's few clunky tracks, and also reveals the folly of the LP's concept. Music that riffs off a modernist poem—an impenetrably dense form for the casual reader—is likely to be either frustratingly vague or overly literal.
Setting aside the concept, In Death's Dream Kingdom has many highlights. Pan Daijing's "The Island Within" is one of the most powerful manifestations of her queasy, body-horror-inspired ambient yet. Peder Mannerfelt's "Post Sense Perspective" is a convincing fusion of jittery techno, dark ambient and synthwave music. Koenraad Ecker's "Rat's Coat" is full of found-sound ASMR weirdness. The record's dark themes chime well with Spatial's off-kilter dance music, which takes a sinister turn on "Haunted Dance Hall." The morbid subtext of In Death's Dream Kingdom allows some artists to explore sounds and ideas that might not fit so easily on their own records.
By invoking T.S. Eliot, the compilation attaches itself to a questionable figure. In Death's Dream Kingdom is meant to reflect on the current "dark times," but Eliot was hardly a champion of progressive politics. He was equivocal on fascism, and a hardline conservative who once argued during a 1933 lecture that in an ideal society "the population should be homogenous." He was also an anti-Semite. In that same lecture, he went on to say that "reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable." The sentiment was no less clear in Burbank With A Baedeker: Bleistein With A Cigar, which contains the lines, "The rats are underneath the pile / The Jew is underneath the lot."
Thankfully, the artists use Eliot's poem only as a jumping-off point. In Death's Dream Kingdom is a fine a survey of the current experimental electronic landscape. Few other record labels would be able to draw a line so ably between Otto Lindholm, Tomoko Sauvage, Peter Van Hoesen and Ian William Craig, and the freedom with which artists have approached the task has led to some truly stunning results and career highlights. The label's adventurous streak, however, is a double-edged sword here. The music is excellent; the concept is pretentious and tenuous, and associates the album with a figure who undermines its message. In its attempt to legitimize itself with a literary classic, In Death's Dream Kingdom forgets something important. This is dark music for dark times, sure, but the music can speak for itself, and in a much more intuitive language.
01. Otto Lindholm - Cain
02. Pan Daijing - The Island Within
03. Lanark Artefax - Styx
04. Petit Singe - Komm Wieder Mit
05. Peder Mannerfelt - Post Sense Perspective
06. Tomoko Sauvage - In Some Brighter Sphere
07. Pye Corner Audio - Box In A Box
08. Sophia Loizou - Shadows Of Futurity
09. Abul Mogard - Trembling With Tenderness
10. Pär Grindvik - Speaking Their Minds
11. Koenraad Ecker - Rat's Coat
12. Roly Porter - Without Form
13. Hodge - Sunlight On A Broken Column
14. Gazelle Twin - The Dream Ends
15. Shapednoise - Ghostly Metafiction
16. ASC - Tessellate
17. Batu - Zoo Hypothesis
18. We Will Fail - Carbon Trail
19. Peter Van Hoesen - 98 Lines
20. Spatial - Haunted Dance Hall
21. Yves De Mey - Solemn But Fading
22. Mindspan - Accept Things As They Are
23. Kangding Ray - Glacier
24. Zov Zov - Post Six
25. Ian William Craig - An End Of Rooms