Larsen | Rever | Review
Pitchforkmedia | Dominique Leone
What I get here: gray skies, hollow trees, gallows poles...
...night beasts along the moors, bouts of depression lit afire with trance, and trash can percussion-- not to mention more than an ounce of poetic pretense. But of course, when was emotional music supposed to deliver anything more weighty? It's very contagious, and I can hope that was the intention. Truthfully, I have no idea how or why this mysterious Italian band made this music. Furthermore, I'm not alone in this.
Last year, Swans founder Michael Gira (and Young God Records chief) started getting odd packages from Torino, Italy. Inside were CD-Rs of sounds compiled, produced and otherwise emitted from a band of people known simply as Larsen. On his website, Gira describes the music therein as ranging from soft, accordion-based abstractions to "sometimes just a single sound or noise, a scraping sound, as if someone were slowly etching a piece of rusted metal with a blade of some sort." The final package he received had nothing like that, but rather a wad of cash, a ticket to Italy, and a request for him to produce an album for Larsen. And as anyone with even a hint of adventure (or sadism) would, Gira accepted the invitation.
Upon arriving, Gira was never actually permitted to see the members of Larsen. Apparently, he was relegated to the control room as the band, behind a silk screen, made music and, when it fancied them, communicated to Gira via translators and other strangers. He speaks of frequent "heated, violent arguments" and "watching the shadows" from behind the cloth barrier, as Larsen played for hours on end before deciding it was time to actually start recording. This is the introduction I had before me as I listened to Rever, and never let it be said that a band's lore can't be as much a factor in their music as the sounds they make.
Now, taken on its own, this record doesn't possess quite as much of the macabre as its back story would indicate. It does come awfully close, though. Larsen's sound has elements of damaged, arty rock from all over. I can hear lots of Sonic Youth-- conceptually, even when it doesn't directly call to mind their music-- in the dread-full, repetitive figures and omnipresent guitar noise. That isn't to say that Larsen are necessarily "noisy," but a lot of the playing reminds me of similarly tense, rock deconstructions by the American band. There are also some hints of post-rock, though what I really want to say is that Larsen doesn't mind taking a groove and running into the ground, all in the name of lulling me into a damp, sickly stupor. Gira calls them "highly ritualized sounds," and if that means they're often uncomfortably numbing, I agree.
The opener, "Impro #2," features just such cyclical meandering. It begins with an up-tempo (for Larsen, anyway) march pattern, featuring triangle, accordion and lazily strummed, clean electric guitar. Soon, an unidentified male vocalist (musicians include Roberto Maria Clemente, Paolo Dellapiana and Sylvia Grosso, though no specific performance info is provided) chants indecipherably, sounding like a cross between a Tibetan throat singer and a restrained death metal growler. I would call this a mantra if not for the old recording of a trombone which comes in at the very end.
The epic "Radial" follows, and this is where Larsen really lets its strengths shine. Thunderous reverberations act as fanfare, and a distant accordion waxes the floor for the onslaught of distorted bass and guitar which has crept up so subtly as to make me wonder how things got so impenetrably loud all of a sudden. Someone begins to saw at a zither (or some such piece of arcane craftsmanship) in the background, until about four minutes in when the rainstorm softens a bit. The bass is still hacking away, but slowly receding to reveal that the accordion from the beginning has in fact never stopped moaning. The track is 11 minutes, and Larsen doesn't let on that this was just an introduction, until the "tune" starts at the 51Ž2-minute mark. At that point, they rip into genuine fuzz-trance, Goth-psych-- let's just say that it's gloomier than This Heat, yet punchier than late-period Swans.
The fairly brief "Mentre" lightens the mood considerably (and the fact that it's in a major key tonality helps a ton), and even manages to use the guttural growl of the male vocalist as a droning counter-line to the spoken female narration. "Finger Number Six" tightens the rhythmic arrangement (just sticks and a tom), though retains the light electric guitar strum as an accompanying instrument for the ultra-minimalist (read: two notes) melody. During their more experimental moments, Larsen might seem to fall into the psych camp, with big, echo-treated atmospherics and dark, acid-purified espousals from the unknown singers. However, the beat strategies presented on this tune (and others, like the aggressive "Akin") often tighten the reins on the group's tendency to spill.
Chiefly, my issue with Rever isn't that the band works up too much lather in their mud bath; rather, they only really seem to make one mess, over and over. Fifty minutes of brooding, pensive mood music might hit the spot for me on occasion, though could be a bit tedious if I'm not up for it. But at least as I write this, it's fairly impressive. With any luck, Larsen may one day raise their black curtain to reveal something frighteningly good.