Kistvaen by Roly Porter

Release date: June 5, 2020
Label: Subtext




“Everywhere we shine death and life burn into something new,

Rise up like perfumed nebulae through the jubilant road flowing beneath our feet.”

Aberjhani – Elemental: The Power of Illuminated Love


Death, as a subject matter, rarely strays far from an active mind. But right now it’s barging its way to the forefront of conversation, debate, and thought. Be it the spiralling death rate of a global pandemic or the callous brutality of racist law enforcers, it’s everywhere that we choose to turn. Yet there are far too many people who do not have the luxury of choice. So, for the sakes of those unfairly in the firing line (both figuratively and literally) because of little more than skin pigmentation, we mustn’t turn away from these upsetting realities. Those of us who are able to support, shield, and listen ought to do just that. Education is vital in order to understanding both the past and the present. Putting yourself in harm’s way can be scary and can kickstart those thoughts of mortality. Perhaps there are things that we’ve missed from the past? Things that could help with right now? Things we need to relearn in order to better face the frightening world that greets us today*.

This is where Kistvaen comes in.

Compared to the loftier ambitions of his previous work (Aftertime referenced various celestial bodies from Frank Herbert’s Dune, Lifecycle Of A Massive Star was concerned with precisely that, and 2016’s Third Law focused its attentions on Newton’s third law of motion), Roly Porter has opted to utilise his trademark ecstatic electronics in order to investigate something a little closer to humanity this time around. In studying death rituals from the Neolithic period onwards, Porter is attempting to cast a light upon our own modern tangles with mortality.

The arc of the album appears to reinforce this. It mimics specific stages related to the death experience. Beginning with preparation, it shifts into the act of burial itself, there’s a sense of moving between planes of existence, followed by an exultant act of reincarnation before a new dawn is finally shepherded in. Third track ’An Open Door’, for instance, captures a feeling of transcendence. Of ascending whilst bravely facing a breakdown of reality. There’s a a sense of optimism shot through with trepidation. It’s akin to confronting the terrifying present whilst fighting to believe in a better future. To die whilst facing our first god – the sun. Something that is both an ancient source of life and continued inspiration. Like Icarus we hurtle towards that great fiery ball in the sky, and end up crumbled into particles. That sense of hope, however, remains a consistent and surviving thread.

Then there is the candidly titled ‘Burial’ which comes across as a battle between deep end electronic whirring and the musical equivalent of moonlight glinting off of sharpened stone. There’s a rush of sound to the head. Ground is slammed. Tension builds until electronics explode alongside fizzing, bursting, and crackling doom thuds. Sounds become muted and scatter as if trapped under falling soil. A mournful Basinski-esque motif loops over and over, mirroring the heartbreak borne of slowing heartbeats. Somehow we’re left with a sense of acceptance.

For this recording, Porter has enlisted the vocal skills of Mary-Anne Roberts (Bragod), Ellen Southern (Dead Space Chamber Music), and the singer/researcher, Phil Owen. Their contributions are primarily wordless and finely interweaved within a tapestry of field recordings amidst the carefully nuanced (although sometimes earth-moving) sound design or, as Porter would justifiably have it, sonicnecromancy. Opener ‘Assembly’ combines cracked incantatory voices gasping against recordings of excavated ground and shifted stones. Distant collisions form unnerving and unpredictable rhythms. Sounds surge like dying light laying its last across sacred ground. The voices become more desperate. No, that’s not quite right. They become more certain. And that’s enough to unsettle. These are sounds that haunt and prepare you either for flight or to fight. 

A couple of the tracks do dare to deviate from this claustrophobic dronescape, however. ‘Inflation Field’ feels like the flutters of space expansion. The title itself harking back to the cosmological aspects of his previous work. Then there is the finale which gives the impression of a fresh breath being gently exhaled as a new day rises up over the horizon. Whirrs and buzzing of technology seem to gesture towards the future, providing a precious, positively glowing note on which to end.

But, before we reach the final track, there is the apotheosis of Kistvaen’s endeavours.

The ideas planted and nurtured throughout the album are best presented all at once on ‘Passage’. This 15 minute mini-epic sees Porter meld the monumental notion of universe birth to the intensely personal act of passing on in what seems like a bold and perhaps grandiose tack but an approach that is, nevertheless, heaving with poignancy. Creating a passage between birth and death feels vital now more than ever. Particularly as cracks of possibility appear to arise out of tragedy. Fittingly, this track is messy, uncontrolled, heart-racing, uncertain. But it has to push through. Knock aside opposition. The surging shocks of sound falter and spread, picking up both pace and urgency. Cries and gurgles become swells, become waves, become a fierce tsunami churning through the land, flattening all in its way, leaving a gap once it passes. A space to be inhabited. Catch your breath though, cos it’s coming straight back and this time it is stronger than before. It’s not just destructive, there is belief and positivity riding atop this wave. It elevates, collects, supports, and shields. Slashes of violence flare up in order to make room and, in its wake, that space appears again. This time, however, it is occupied by new ideas, new movements, new voices, and a sense of stirring calm. It is not weak. It shall not be pushed back and it will forge onwards, bringing all with it.

It may seem frivolous to focus on art during periods of such visible violence and upheaval but, after we’re gone and are little more than worm feed, it is culture that survives to tell the tales of our times. To connect human experiences across ages. To reassure one another that, whilst we all certainly die, we all deserve to have damn well lived too.


*side note – if the world has only become a dangerous and terrifying place for you quite recently then, my friend, you’re fortunate enough to be in a position of privilege and it’s entirely up to you and your conscience how you choose to wield that.

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