StemCell Research Project has been, in the short time that I’ve been aware of their existence, a project that has confounded me to a degree. I’ve never understood the name of the project or how it ties into any of the releases that the primary mind behind the music, John Paul Whetzel, has released upon the world. That said, there is a decade-long demo period for SCRP between 1995 and 2005 that little is known about — a period that culminated with a complete 3-year break due to depression — and taking hints just from the titles of the demos in those years, the project name once made more sense in context. Over the years since those bleak days, Whetzel has found a variety of support in the dark ambient / noise scene through labels including Japan’s Deserted Factory, Husk Records, Black Goat Records, Slaughter Productions, and others. Whetzel also has another side, however, as he has been either fully behind or a part of the extreme metal projects Pro-Death, Welter in thy Blood, and The Slaughtered Lamb — all of which also contain his shadow in Darea Plantin — a musician who also accompanies him on this release in the working of bass and field recordings. These projects are what has seemingly taken all of his time in the past half-decade or so as this new release, “Charnel Houses”, marks Whetzel’s first release with SCRP in 6 years.
Confusion about the name aside, StemCell Research Project has always been able to create a style of death industrial / dark ambience that is effective in atmosphere and interesting in subject matter. Though in the “Museum of Sleep” era SCRP attempted to narrate the tracks through long track titles, “Charnel Houses” leaves it be with more simplistic descriptions. Not all tracks are as effective as the project’s past, but the dark spirit that was behind the compositions before still lingers in moments. A particular let-down is “Cutting the Vessel”, a weakly produced track of light fragmented buzzing and a minute amount of sampling that almost entirely lacks any kind of significant atmosphere. This track should have been the strongest on the album given the subject of departing from the mortal body, but it lingered without presence. They follow this up with the strongest track that, to my knowledge, they’ve ever created with “The Rite of Ossilegium”. This is a tenebrous, brooding track with a surreal vehement quality about it. Gentle synth washes over the background while textured electronics and distorted voice populate the foreground of the mix. Decisively melancholic, “The Rite of Ossilegium” paints, with incredible accuracy, the looming desolate existence of this year-long state of being for the lifeless vessel of the deceased.
To understand these subjects and their place in this album, it’s important to understand what a Charnel House is. These buildings don’t simply house any kind of living, but the dead and can thus be described as a kind of ossuary. These building are used to house bones that would either be removed in countries where burials were difficult, therefore allowing for a re-usage of space, or as a final resting place for bones of bodies in situations like that spoken of through the track of “The Rite of Ossilegium”. Ossilegium is, from the modern perspective of burial rites, a rather gruesome Jewish practice from the early Roman empire that involved allowing the body to decompose for one year on a prepared surface before returning for a secondary ceremony in which the bones themselves would be laid to rest in a final chamber in the family tomb. One can imagine the energy and the subtle sounds surrounding such a macabre place. In its best moments, the album takes hold of these elements, grasping at the faintly whispered disembodied voices, gentle guitar-driven and electronic flux wavering behind the potent energy.
That said, this is an album surrounding death in every conceivable form. The sound within doesn’t always possess the power that the theme implies, but it certainly has its moments, especially on the back-end of the album.
01) Transcending the Threshold
02) Shroud of Scars
03) Cutting the Vessel
04) The Rite of Ossilegium
05) Blackened Skeletal Remains