Various Artists: Infernal Proteus

How often do you think about plants? However important they are to you, it’s probably not as important as they are to the creators of Infernal Proteus. This is a 96-page hardback book, containing 40 colour illustrations of plants. Each illustration is complemented by a piece of music on one of the four CDs included. Each piece of music is supposed to illustrate the plant in question, although this is not always obvious when listening to them.

I recently spent a day walking around the Eden Project, the former quarry in Cornwall that has been given over to exploring and strengthening mankind’s relationship with the world of plants. The Eden site contains two vast glass domes that meticulously recreate the climatic conditions existing in various parts of the world – the tropical rainforest, the Mediterranean and rural Australia, for example. Plants normally found only in those areas survive and flourish in the domes. It’s a fascinating place, allowing the visitor to experience the beauty and resourcefulness of plants in ways that would otherwise be closed off to most.

In literature, Wordsworth exemplified the Romantic fascination with nature, viewing animals, plants and the landscape as essentially reflective of human experience. At the same time, however, the poet John Clare – a Northamptonshire labourer who, when not being held in asylums, spent the whole of his life working on the land – wrote about nature in a far more direct, unmediated way. For Clare, the existence of animals and plants was so vivid, so powerful, that to write about them in relation to his own life would have been an unthinkable violation. Bolstered by pressing ecological concerns, the Eden Project proposes a similar view of plants as deserving of attention and respect in their own right.

A different approach to the natural world informs Infernal Proteus. The collection is subtitled ‘A Musical Herbal’; traditionally, a herbal is a book containing descriptions of plants with medicinal properties. Although some of the plants here, such as yohimbe, ginkgo and marijuana, do have such properties, most do not, and one or two, such as poison ivy, are positively harmful. Compiler Tyler Davis confirms in his introduction that the book is not intended as a herbal in the traditional sense. Instead, it takes its lead from the Romantic impulse to view plants through a prism of human concerns and desires. Davis writes:

“The world of flora encompasses our lives, and can provide physical and/or spiritual renewal. Each person must have an affinity with at least one plant, yet he or she may not know it.”

This belief is shared by many of the contributors to the compilation, at least those who have included explanatory texts with their images and music. The notes to In Gowan Ring’s homage to the dandelion, and the song itself, anticipate the consumption of wine made from the flower. Makoto Kawabata of Acid Mothers Temple, one of the best known of the artists here, poignantly recollects his childhood fascination with the poisonous equinox flower. Baradelan sees the miniature bonsai tree both as an aid to meditation and as a symbol of mental and physical imprisonment.

The music itself is largely abstract ambient soundscaping, with occasional detours into sinister folk dirges and the occasional rollicking show-stopper. What follows is a selective rundown of some of the highlights.

Disc one concentrates more on gothic/Romantic songform than the later discs. Of these, the previously mentioned In Gowan Ring contribute a plaintive, beautifully wistful paean to the dandelion, its lilting vocals and restrained instrumentation steeped in regret and longing. Venereum Arvum lend an eerie, Wicker Man-inflected atmosphere to ‘Hawthorn’, the words of a traditional English song telling of death and renewal. On ‘Kelp’, Amber Asylum offer an exquisitely sad nocturne for violin, cello and voice. Of the instrumentals, Endura’s ‘Hops’ is a delightful, suitably merry piccolo exercise in praise of the plant judiciously described as “the medicine of the poor”.

Disc two begins the trend towards the ambient that is maintained for the rest of the collection. The pick of these is ‘Beech’ by Jonathan Coleclough (who has collaborated with Nurse With Wound’s Colin Potter) and Tim Hill, a striking and disorientating dronescape. Elsewhere, Kern & Van Pelt’s ‘Pomegranate’ is a vivid evocation of lost love, the crackle of an old record lending the piece a distant, enchanted aura. Steve Roden’s ‘Pine’ is also of interest, being one of the few pieces in the collection where, we are told, the plant itself is used as a sound source. The introduction informs us that the piece was made by rubbing two pine cones together and electronically manipulating the results in the studio. The result is a barrage of unnerving knocking sounds, underpinned by a dark rhythmic pulse. HU’s ‘Tea’ (on disc four) was produced in a similarly organic fashion, by running a violin bow across tea leaves; but the latter piece is far less notable, and the accompanying note on ‘cryptoacoustics’ (a bogus theory that sound can carry ‘spiritual energy’) is risible.

Disc three begins disastrously with The Red King’s ‘Opium Poppy’, a dismal farrago of gothic pomposity, blaring synthesisers and cod-operatic vocals. Quality takes a further nosedive with the dreary sub-Current 93 folk of Numinosum, but picks up again with a trio of looming soundscapes by Wolfskin, Nerthiagh and Mnortham. The closing piece, Baradelan’s ‘Bonsai’, modulates from soothing major chords and an affecting female voice to a spooky netherworld of rumbles and drones.

Disc four lurches unexpectedly into Industrial territory, with Mania and Igor 18 both coming up with intelligent, well crafted blasts of noise. The Lotus Eaters (not, one imagines, the 80s popsters who had a hit with ‘The First Picture of You’) have the pleasure of writing about marijuana. Their contribution is less woozy than you might expect, blending harsh extremes of feedback with languorous, seductive guitar lines. Makoto Kawabata bows his guitar for an extended drone-athon à la Cale and Conrad, while the aptly named Dave Knott depicts the giant sequoia redwood tree with a flickering, Fahey-esque backwoods ambience.

The book is beautifully produced, my only quibble being the tatty plastic pockets inside the front and back covers that house the CDs. The illustrations are uniformly excellent, ranging in medium from photography to pen and ink, oils and computer-treated images. This is a handsome release and a true labour of love. One may take issue with the metaphysical nature of some of the contributors’ speculations, but there is no doubting the seriousness of their engagement with the project, or the success with which they direct our attention towards the often overlooked world of plants, herbs and trees.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)

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