Picture me this. An old salvage ship, not-quite wrecked, adrift and tilting violently in storm waves: whatever’s left of the weathered spoils now tangling into mere junk. Or a drunken fistfight in a rainy cobbled street – respective blows to the windpipe, gasping for breath, stemming and chewing on vomit, yet neither unwilling pugilist goes down – it just never ends. Or a hoarder’s attic, overrun with mould and cobwebs, only the roof has been leaking, and has been for sometime, and the slimy flood is just beginning to trickle into the open mouth of the hoarder, barely conscious from a nasty blow to head.
This only goes some way to conveying the wheezing, clattering carnage of this second record by Roman Nose, the outfit of Singing Knives don Jon Marshall. Following on from Black [Silk] Death on Silk [Silk] Road a record a few years back of free reeds, for this outing we have a quartet of Marshall (various reeds, voice, tapes, electronics), Sarah McWatt (voice, various reeds), Otto Willberg (double bass) and Charlie Collins (percussion). Make no mistake, this is no prissy tiptoeing free improv you were expecting (the clumsily amplified double bass that rips open ‘Shifted Sinistral’ makes sure of that). The liner notes list a right grab-bag of international reeds and bellows – sheng, tuluum, hulusi, harmonium, concertina. It’s honestly hard to tell which instrument is producing what. Extended technique stretches out the delicate timbres of each reed into a primitive, unrecognisable sludge. Groans, shudders, coughs and wheezes – all viciously heckled by wild percussion. Collins’ drums are loud, brutish, treated by cheap effects – a sudden deep boom, spluttering clatter or a soft, convulsive rumble of deep toms cracking and splitting the free reeds. Not so much aspiring for space or transcendence, more just trying to break out a strangled expression, failing, and then just revelling in its own filth.
Naturally air, breath and voice – strangled, struggling, gasping – are the underlying Promethean forces beneath most of the tracks, occasionally coming to the fore naked and tortured. ‘Zydeco Derriere’ hurls a two-note bellows split and some sandpaper sax-like jolts around some eerie choked chuckling. ‘Brekekekex Koax Koax’ (the chant of the croaking frogs in Aristophanes’ The Frogs) sounds like a coming to after a heavy blow to the head. A weedly drone is cloaked in a slinky repetitive bass figure while comically bent cymbals clang and distort. Air seeps into the drone fibres; tapes gurgle and wheeze. Towards the end a voice bubbles into focus. A terrifyingly strangled cry erupts. “FU FU FUUU FU FU FU FU FUUUUUUUUUU”.
Similarly; trauma, pain and torture figure a lot. That’s where the drums come in – the splitting of bone to the suffocation of breath. ‘Chickasaw Krewe’ is all diseased mechanical bodies. A spluttering set of ticking cymbals and rim hits cycling around a looping dry heave. Joyous voices melt into trapped and screwed ghoulish groans, pressed down by stern double bass, muted flutes and granular tape itch. Toward the end, again, it breaks out into a scream – a guttural wailing wall. Forced air escaping, rattling and agitating everything it can on its way out. Bodies desperately trying to wrench themselves into air. Broken mutation. Ovidian glitch.
Air, bone, body, then things seep out. Moisture gives a particularly nasty, unseemly quality to a lot of the cuts. The leaking spit valve and saliva building up. Foam and spittle and drool and trickle. The best tracks on the record feature the kind of vocal sounds to warrant outraged letters to the editor. ‘A Skin Container’ references a Northern slang for drink carrier, perhaps explaining the uncomfortable sound of chewing and suckling that pervades through bass and reed frown. Water is more pervasive elsewhere. ‘The Twin’ starts out aromatic and sensuous – a scribbly heady flute circled by glistening waterphone – before trickling sounds bring to mind visions of burnished teal coral geology before struck gongs and brass knocks jolt the peace. Rough percussion bashing flux into form.
Fluidity shows through shifting form too, and the record is at its best when air, water and percussion are smushed into a slow, relentless and thrillingly degenerate metamorphosis. ‘Ty Trist’ is a standout. Named after an old colliery mine, its shot through with scratchy gummed-up tape moisture and barbaric vocal babbling. Voice is constantly mutating wretchedly, the same scream dislocated and reconfigured a dozen or more times. Juddering double bass scrabbles at the floorboards. Eventually nothing but a throaty spit and suffocated scream are left. Water drains away, all that’s left is tortured breath. Throughout, Collins’ percussive pops and crashes burst erratically between channels; air and fluid is metamorphosed into crashing objects. Credit here to the mixing and production of the record. Throughout, sludgy reeds slosh from channel to channel, then smash with a unearthly clatter, while heavy percussive magma burns holes in the tape. ‘Three Port Valve’ is a great example, alternating sniveling flute waver, snare crack and cymbal tingle, and a wretched polyphonous vocal belch between left, right and centre. Occasional organ-like tones crack through the centre setting off motion in the voice and flute – rustling of leaves, drip, bile bubble and pop burst in pockets from channel to channel.
I’ve made this record sound horrific, but it isn’t all so. The sounds are ugly but the momentum and mutation are violently exhilarating and uncannily ecstatic. There is some genuine prettiness too. ‘K.S. Trespass Egress’ is just pure watery-eyed bliss. Some deliciously sloshed reedsy keys hurl a joyous chromatic flurry around rumbly, drunkenly thudding drums. Amusingly cheap clanging noises don’t tip the balance. Even when the slosh gets choppier, you still ride it through as a listener.
Such fleeting moments of burnished bliss are welcome. There’s a lot going on in this record, and it can be hard just to keep up sometimes (I’ve been listening to files and regret not having a grounding tea and biscuit during the flip to make the B side a little more digestible). As has been alluded to, the tracks take titles from a staggering range of sources (silenced indigenous peoples, leaky booze vessels, central heating components), adding up to some beautifully glutinous mythologising unique to the North of England. Navigating it can be tricky, but there is a thread of air, breath, expression being forced; unwillingly trapped, contained and manipulated, and the resulting muted, asphyxiated scream resulting. Let the chaos batter you, soon enough you begin to see it laid out bare…
Roman Nose comes out on Singing Knives in December. Limited to 200 LPs, featuring some stellar artwork by Bridget Hayden. Pre-order from http://singingknivesrecords.co.uk/roman-nose/, check out the rest of the label while yr there for more such grotesquerie