I was never much good at chemistry at school. My teacher, Mr Grove, was a nice guy and, to the best of my recollection, was also an accomplished concert pianist. He may even have been a descendant of George Grove of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians fame, I have no idea. But he had his work cut out in my case, and I crashed out of O-level chemistry with an ignominious E, the lowest possible grade.
While two of my favourite groups, Shearwater and Van der Graaf Generator, have frequently drawn on themes related to biology and physics respectively,1 the role of chemistry in music has perhaps been undervalued. Up until now AMM’s The Nameless Uncarved Block, with its three long tracks “Sedimentary”, “Igneous” and “Metamorphic”, has stood as the last word in what can only be described as rock music.
All that could be about to change, however, with the release of Cucina Povera & ELS’ The Oystercatcher on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label. The title sounds like it could have come from the pen of Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg (an accomplished ornithologist as well as a great songwriter). A close reading of the album, however, reveals that the duo of Maria Rossi (vox) and Edward Simpson (modular synth) are more concerned with the inanimate than with the animate. Opening track “Mantle” (the layer of rock between the earth’s crust and its core) sets the scene for the rest of the album, with Rossi’s multitracked vocals layered ominously over Simpson’s tenebrous synth tones.
The Finnish-born, Glasgow-based Rossi has released three solo albums as Cucina Povera prior to the present release. As a vocalist, she recalls Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance in her use of an outwardly unrecognizable language. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t sing actual words but she doesn’t use her voice as a pure sound source either. The implication is that she’s wired into some private, occult discourse, the language of spells and incantations (one track is titled “Loitsu”, the Finnish word for incantation). But where Gerrard soars blissfully towards some imagined paradise, Rossi’s closely-miked singing is resolutely earthbound, mired in gravity and density.
Simpson, meanwhile, has form as one half of Circuit Breaker, an avant rock duo that has recorded for the Harbinger Sound label and thereby forged links with kindred spirits such as Sleaford Mods and Consumer Electronics. On this album he creates a series of unquiet, disturbed soundscapes, with phased tones that modulate from cavernous bass rumbles to glinting mid-range frequencies. “1427°C” (the temperature at which glass melts, apparently) is a shivery chorale for electronics and voice, while “Marmori” (also a Finnish word, this time for marble) effortlessly evokes the cold, smooth surface of the eponymous rock with its undulating synth patterns.
The undoubted highlight, though, is the 15-minute closing track “Eon”, on which the restrained beauty of Rossi’s voice is gradually bent and twisted out of shape by Simpson’s malevolent presence. Forgoing the finely balanced symmetry between voice and electronics that characterizes the rest of the album, here Simpson engineers an assaultive laboratory of sound that confronts and finally obliterates everything in its path.2 Beset by malign dissonance and scalding eruptions of noise, the song turns inward on itself, looking for an escape route but finding none.
1. Not to mention the epic Nick Cave song “Higgs Boson Blues”, with its repeated riff on my hometown and the location of CERN, where the eponymous particle was discovered: “I’m driving my car down to Geneva…” Is this the only mention of Geneva in song?
2. It’s no surprise to learn that The Oystercatcher was mastered for release by noise guru Russell Haswell.