After Music

Through Mazes Running, by Drew Daniel and John Wiese

Through Mazes Running, the new collaboration between Drew Daniel (Matmos, The Soft Pink Truth) and John Wiese (Sissy Spacek), toes the line between pleasure and pain with great dexterity.

Out of songs, Sheffield.

Few records begin as savagely as opening track “Cropped to the Ears”, which sounds like a battlefield, the squawks and burbles of analogue electronic equipment transformed into a hail of bullets, as if someone had thrown the soundtrack for a few 1950s science fiction films and Kraftwerk’s 1975 album Radio-activity into a wood chipper.

This daunting introduction sets the stage for a series of experiments in which the two musicians take turns turning up the strange.

For listeners who only know Daniel’s work, the results are shocking. Through Mazes Running sounds a lot more like Sissy Spacek’s records than anything by Matmos or The Soft Pink Truth.

The difference is that, whereas Wiese’s work reflects a horror vacui approach, in which every track is packed tight with noise, Through Mazes Running is more spacious, providing just enough room to breathe so that the next sonic onslaught is keenly felt.

Through Mazes Running conjures the ruins left behind when traditional music-making has been destroyed, whether from within or without. There are times, such as the beginning of the eighth track “Despised Clang”, when the traces of a pulsing EDM rhythm can be discerned. But these are few and far between.

It’s not easy listening. Through Mazes Running asks the fundamental questions of modern aesthetics with unusual acuity.

What do we do when none of the expectations we’ve been brought up with are being met? How hard should we try to extract meaning from apparent chaos? Should we try to acclimate ourselves to this state of cultural alienation?

The more I listened to Through Mazes Running, the easier it became to cope with its provocations. I started to know what was coming. I had developed new expectations that the record would meet.

And I would wait for passages I liked: the fusillade of irregular beats at the beginning “Multigrid”, think hail on a tin roof; the pealing bells on “Regarding Continua”, the auditory car crashes in “Deeper Gashes”.

Truthfully, though, the number of listeners who would willingly listen to Through Mazes Running several times in succession is slim. Achieving that kind of familiarity is probably not the point.

So what is?

Instead of trying to memorise the record, so that its sounds become progressively less unsettling, it makes more sense to listen less, to keep it fresh. That way Through Mazes Running will retain its power to shock.

It’s a delicate balance. Maybe just taking a break between listens would do the trick, since the mind’s capacity to habituate itself to difficult circumstances diminishes in the absence of regular repetition.

Through Mazes Running delineates the negative space of more traditional approaches to music. In making us miss melody, consistent rhythm, singing etc., it can serve as a kind of palette cleanser, reminding us of what we care about.

But I don’t think this is the record’s primary function. Listening to Through Mazes Running is like riding a scary roller-coaster. In the moment, it can feel overwhelming. Afterwards, though, comes a sense of accomplishment.

Photograph courtesy of Tim Parkinson. Published under a Creative Commons license.