Dylan Thomas beat Jesus Christ by six years, warding off death and the crippling effects of alcoholism until he was 39. Like all victims of lifelong pain—especially the self-inflicted kind—Thomas’ legacy of corrosion and self-neglect eventually caught up to him. Though adored for poems like “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” he strangely died after lapsing into a heavy coma, failing to take his most revered advice.
While not quite the dour, fatalistic, and ironically prophetic example that Thomas’ life story provides, Silvia Kastel’s 39 is brooding and sparse. Recorded mostly live from a former wine cellar in Southern Italy, the record is personal in subject matter and sound. It’s profoundly intimate, almost to the extent that the listener may feel intrusive, like he or she bumbled into the witches’ den after taking a brief stroll through the forest.
39 relies upon two icons: one of the nurturing, blossoming motherboard and one of the decrepit, isolated poet. Kastel, textural iconoclast that she is, begins her record with an industrial siren call—waves of pulsating, massaging feedback that become a rickety yet dense rhythm section, inviting and didactic without being obtuse. And then Kastel’s sternly coaxing voice comes in, providing a very real, audibly tangible outlet for the ghost in the machine. The namesake of the record, of course, is Dylan Thomas’ bleak meditation on meaning (or lack thereof) and isolation, “Poem 39”—an appropriate pairing for the cold, mechanical whir of Kastel’s instrumental.
However, stamping one sound, trick, or label on the record does it a disservice. No aspect of 39 is sacred, safe, or beyond recrimination under Kastel’s orders to march forward. Because of this, and a penchant for subtle manipulation, 39 manages to stay above the lure of monotony throughout its two tracks and fifteen minutes. Instruments come and go, as do words and auditory flourishes; as a result, 39 never sounds anything but fresh.
Few records marry narrative and sound quite so effortlessly and effectively, especially in the experimental realm. An evocative listen, and an essential one for textural, conceptual junkies, 39 should not be slept on.