My best friend Peter and I have radically different tastes. I tend to listen to music that is skittish and unresolved. I like choppy melodies, disorienting time signature changes and often, when I’m feeling boisterous, a lively skank beat. Peter, contrariwise, loves slow, immersive ambient soundscapes, with deep, vibratory drones and hidden, slowly-emergent intricacies. The music I like, you have to speed up to listen to. The music Peter likes, you have to slow down. We’re both deeply anxious people and while I like my music to mirror and reflect my inner-state of anxiety, Peter likes his music to reflect the outer-state of the world, in order to better harmonise his inner-state.
April Larson’s album The Second Throne is the kind of work that I normally expect to hear at Peter’s flat, laid on his bed in the dark, or over a pair of black, cushioned headphones. It demands a radically different style of listening to that which I am used to – no less attentive, but slower, more intuitive, more wired-in. The music on the album sounds like it could have been sourced directly from the earth itself, sung from the hallowed and hollowed mouths of standing stones. It is fascinating to me that digital music can sometimes sound the most organic. Musically, the closest thing I have experienced to this album is listening to a recording taken from inside the belly of a whale played sometime in the witching hour on Radio 3 as part of their ‘Late Junction‘ programme, which April Larson’s music would fit comfortably inside. As such, The Second Throne is closer to the warmth and intimacy of the output of Finland’s Paavoharju, Scotland’s Boards of Canada or Germany’s Ulrich Schnauss, than the more urban, alienated sounds by the likes of London’s Burial or Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This is rural drone music, not urban noise music. According to her rather gnomic press release, Larson “is the representative of a tribe of Nāga located along the coast of Louisiana” and one can imagine her music emerging, gas like, from the region’s swamplands to settle in some abandoned computer terminal.
I would find it hard to single out individual tracks in this review, since the whole album segues together as a series of tides washing up against your brain and it’s not the kind of work one could imagine producing a pull-out single or a chart-topping anthem. However, particularly pleasing to my ears was the fourth track, ‘Amber Dust of Colossal Stars’, which apart from a perfectly descriptive title, had a particular intimacy and intrigue that I enjoyed. Perhaps it was just a modicum more busy than the surrounding tracks. What the album does well is to balance a sense of hugeness against a sense of smallness. This is a cumbersome thing to put into words (or, rather, I can but express it cumbersomely) but it seems as though the album manages to grasp something of the microcosm and the macrocosm of existence all at once. In that sense, listening to the album is akin to meditation, in which one is simultaneously more alert to the minutiae of the world, while also feeling more plugged-in to the collective. If my friend Peter ever produces a podcast on quantum consciousness (as he seems likely to do) I will recommend asking April Larson for the use of her music for the show. Indeed, while listening to the album – once I had managed to quiet my ever-busy mind – I felt a sensation of ‘coming into light’, accompanied by a slight tingle from my perineum up through my spine, which suggested that Larson was working some sort of magic on my consciousness. As such, I believe The Second Throne might even be of interest to connoisseurs of the brainwave generator or other forms of audio-visual entrainment in its gentle, yet spooky pursuit of hemispheric synchronization. Psychonauts and psilocybin savants should also take note.
The Second Throne also represents the single best experience I have had with Windows Media Player’s visualisation effects. My version of media player is old enough to still have a slightly pixellated, glitchy quality and its swirling, spirographic patterns of cold neon colours suited the music perfectly. Larson’s press release makes the claim that she “listens to music through customized headphones with speakers placed along the jaw and translates music into sense-data through a collection of three interlaced brains.” Certainly, her work provides a deep, sensory experience and I can imagine that these ‘jaw-speakers’ would only enrich matters thrice-fold! In fact, I rather regretted listening to the album on speakers, rather than headphones. If you are accustomed to taking late night walks through the woods, I would recommend The Second Throne as music to accompany your travels. Or, if you happen to be visiting the Arctic tundra, I implore you, bold listener, to at least put ‘Birth After Death’ onto your ipod, which reminded me of The Residents faux-ethnographic soundscape Eskimo from 1979. Actually, if there is one thing I would have liked to have heard more of in The Second Throne that is present on Eskimo, is the sampling of some real-life sounds. This might just be my love of Matmos and their album The Civil War (2003) showing through, but some sounds of crackling fire or distant animal howls or really anything else that might go bump in the night in Louisiana, would have better anchored the music to a sense of place (not that this was ever necessarily Larson’s intention – but it could prove an interesting future experiment).
Larson’s music is not going to be for everyone. If you want tunes to whistle along to, instead of the whistling of empty caverns of noise, or stomping beats, instead of the dark pulse of the world, you’re in the wrong place. However, if drone music is to your fancy and you want something that sounds engaged, peaceful and only moderately unnerving, rather than aggressively alienated and gut-churning (this is very much the Yang to noise-rock’s Yin) take a dive into The Second Throne.