Have you ever woken up to a sour pillow rancid with whiskey breath, drowning in the dirty bedsheets that itch as if they’re made of radio static, then you sit up too quickly and the hangover headache hits at the same time as the dizzying drop in blood pressure that makes your vision fragment for a moment and you just cannot shake the apprehensive suspicion that your world is spiraling out of control toward some dim and hopeless hereafter? You are not alone, we all are. The Desolation Singers search longingly for some kind of resolution to break up this monotonous path of endless denouement. Their long faced and gritty debut album ‘The Blood Between Us’ sheds light on a few of the places they made wrong turns along this quest for solace.
Hailing from Newfoundland and Labrador, this two piece comprised of Neddal Ayad (familiar from the does, Secrets To The Sea, and his solo work as The Great Attractor), and Sophie Naudad (aka Madame B, a multimedia one woman project who is involved in a number of solid projects including her solo work, visual art, running a vintage clothing store as well as performing frequent collaborations and guest spots ) have developed an album of heavy handed, doom laden post country that fits in aesthetically with the other Folk Noir and Gothic Americana groups releasing on Hand/Eye and its sister/parent label Dark Holler Arts like Stone Breath, Nick Grey, Crow Tongue and Martyn Bates (whose exceptional three disc collaboration with MJ Harris, ‘Murder Ballads and Incest Songs’ rings intuitive as springing from the same emotional well as the one The Desolation Singers drink from.) The Desolation Singers however, are distinctive on the label’s roster for their dense harsher sound and abstract experimental song structures.
Like black hearts patched onto their shirtsleeves, The Desolation Singers wear a crusty badge of influence from the darker more experimental groups vaguely trading in the folk music crossfire, groups like Neurosis, Swans, 16 Horsepower, Bloody Panda or Red Sparrowes come to mind though they are all imperfect comparisons. The first two songs on the album “Hanged Man” and “Circle of Crows” exemplify this hard to categorize quality well. The album begins with Naudad having an indiscernible spoken exchange with herself before she beckons the listener along with her into a deep stagnant pool of effect laden drone conjured with Ayad’s guitar work. She reaches with her voice, calling and wailing, to the filaments of static sliding in and out of the ambient murk as if they could pull her like a lifeguard, away from this suffocating misery. Imagine Francoise Hardy doing Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” if you can. “Circle of Crows,” written by and originally recorded in a Deathrock style by Madame B on her album ‘Noisi(h)er Silence’ (available for free download from Zorch Factory Records), is turned here into a murderous elegy with Ayad playing a spectral, repetitive ley line grounding Naudad’s intimate, hallucinatory vocals. This song captures the consuming feeling of cold interpersonal tension, perfected by Swans on their album ‘Soundtracks For The Blind.’ Confrontational and obsessive, the opposite of pillow talk despite the sultry feel, this one brims with unspoken feelings finally emerged following destructive psychic breakthroughs.
For two months now I have struggled in reviewing this intense, heartfelt album as well as moving through a demanding stressful time in my personal life. Throughout, I kept coming back in my mind to the song ‘Lexo’ and a lyric that jumped out to me as prominent and personal during an early listen “I feel so empty,” it goes. Since then I cannot unhear this line nor can I unravel its message to myself without lying. I love the evocative ending of this track when the squalling guitar suddenly disappears into an unexpected echoing crash. We feel so empty because maybe there really is nothing there, Naudad’s desperate laments search discouraged for any bit of meaning to fuel the hunger. She rehearses her responses to problems long past their import, “I thought I could be so….,” she ruminates. I think how any word can fill in the emptiness here because the howling winds of recollection quickly cover any tracks left by meaning as they drag inhospitable across the inner wasteland. I’m sick of this emptiness, this living to eat, I think The Desolation Singers are as well.
In their doomed, apocalyptic rendition of ‘John The Revelator,’ Ayad and Naudad chose wisely to crib lyrics from Son House’s 1965 version of the song which presents three essential biblical episodes that focus on humanity’s interactions with divinity and their consequential aftermath. First the original diaspora from paradise into the desolation is looked back on with Adam shamed into defiant silence by angry Lord calls him to account, next Christ’s passing on of his crucial wisdom to the twelve disciples and the breakdown of their ranks during his final meditative days is recounted, and then in the third verse ultimately depicted is the resurrected Christ as he appears to Mary and Martha at his empty tomb where he conveys them to extend his message that all disciples are welcome to search him out in Galilee. Each of these scenes represent a hinge moment in the Christian timescale. A their heart they are turning points in human destiny where no precedent had been set and the uncertain future was left to be endured in absence of a physical manifestation of the trinity to guide. Between each verse the feeling of not knowing is reinforced as well as reassured by the call and response between Ayad and Naudad asking deliriously after the mysterious chronicler of the apocalypse. ‘Who’s that writing?’ they cry incessantly, just to themselves the opening to deliver the same response again and again over the pale horse tambourine and guitar counting through the dirge slow progression towards the end.
For the closing statement of ‘The Blood Between Us’ Ayad and Naudad are joined by Timothy Renner (credited here as timeMOTHeye,) the founder of Hand/Eye and fellow in musical vision with his ensemble Stone Breath. Renner guests as songwriter as well as performing on the Gimbri, a three stringed Moroccan instrument related to the banjo formed with a body of wood and a membrane of camel that has a lower range and thicker deep chested sound when compared with the banjo. ‘Shaking Tree’ feels like a fever dream as accusatory voices come from every direction moving in and out of glossolalia, driving at a nervous pace, requesting answers to an interrogation concerning two missing children whose circumstances are supposedly known by the subject of examination. Inquiries are also made into more private topics including a garden with roses and a lost silver plate. The mood here is frantic, this is no impersonal courtroom Q and A, but the cutthroat justice undertaken by people closely related and close to the edge.
Highly recommended, The Desolation Singers showcase a deep level of commitment to their aesthetic vision that is rare in a first release. Nothing about this album is easy to get a firm hold on, it is hardly predictable either. There is a misleading simplicity initially apparent that shatters more with each listen into a complex collage of sincere intense mood and disparate styles blending into a dark and unique work that is slow in giving up its secrets and seems to know all yours already.
01 Hang Man
02 Circle of Crows
03 Tear You Up
04 The Blood Between Us
06 John The Revelator
07 Sun Will Rise
08 Shaking Tree