Various Artists

Until Human Voices Wake Us and We Drown Box

(Rune Grammofon; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 7 July 2006

I’m gonna go so far as to declare Rune Grammofon one of the most important labels we have today, and, like the Touch retrospective I covered last week, the only caveat with that assertion is…look, it’s not about how difficult the music is, because it’s pretentious to act as if people who don’t like “difficult” music just “don’t get it.” That said, Until Human Voices Wake Us and We Drown contains a lot of music that drowns me (physically, emotionally, spiritually, whatever). I’m writing from the fringe, on the fringe, about the fringe, and this is glorious, envelope-shredding, nasty, pretty, horrific, cuddly, conflicted music that I want to drown in. On the other hand, many people I’ve played it for have found it too loud, too quiet, too grating, too uninteresting, too whatever. This comp is like a world geography lesson, and everything is a middle ground where somebody feels uncomfortable. But those middle grounds—those borders, where things intersect on peripheries—are sometimes the finest laboratories, and so yeah, it’s difficult, but it’s also simple: forge ahead, deconstruct those boundaries, and find the truth through exploring the fringes of music.

That last is exactly what makes RG capital “I” important. There’s an almost unnatural synergy between artists and label; the artists are constantly pushing forward, ignoring trends while anticipating new ones, avoiding copying themselves on successive albums, and RG, in allowing that to happen, in foregrounding its commitment to Norwegian artists, has allowed a local scene to develop into one of the most exciting and diverse experimental playgrounds we have. Experimentation is not in itself a marker of quality, but it might explain why I’m making such a big deal out of a 5 LP limited-to-one-thousand-copies company-retrospective box-set with a list price of $84.98 (USD) that contains a bunch of music that many people will find “too” a-whole-bunch-of-things and a different group of people may or may not already own. Here’s my “whatever”: nineteen songs, nineteen artists, nineteen kicks in the teeth. RLP 2050LP is absolutely glorious.

There’s the fantastic design by Kim Hiorthøy, to begin with. This thing could front a Martha Stewart-approved living room, all cuddly with the surface of your coffee table, its warm colors and finish picking up stray sunrays as they enter the room. It smells like a library when you crack it open; all sorts of dusty secrets spill from this Norwegian Arc. Each slab of vinyl has it’s own painting that relates to the cover; each LP is themed, pairing old artists with new, rather than attempting to make a chronological argument, until nineteen tracks work together to expose new arcs and languages in the RG history. Some of this music is eight years old, but presented lovingly like this it sounds more than vital—it’s a skydive without a parachute, or having a nuclear bomb explode in your chest: heart-wrenching.

That this is such a beautiful, artistic object without even setting the needle on your player speaks to the drive and motivation behind RG. So does this: despite the warnings clearly posted directly on the label’s website that I stupidly didn’t pay attention to that told me not to contact the label, but rather its North American distributor (Foreign Exposure), Rune Kristofferson still wrote me himself to approve our use of the MoHa! track for our podcast. That the label is essentially a one-man operation is impressive enough; that they’ve released fifty albums in eight years is even more so. But the care and personality that goes into such things is a direct product of RG’s small-scale enterprise nature. Focus on Norway, focus on a small, eclectic coterie of artists, and allow them to shine.

Which they certainly do. The most well-known group here is likely Supersilent, and “4.3” heads off the second side of LP2 with that familiar and creeping musical diction—the entirety of jazz lodged in someone’s throat. Paired with less-known artists, however, we can see how the scene spreads outwards and moves into the Supersilent behemoth, sounding like different ways to deconstruct the full phlegmy noise of “4.3” and cough that shit out. Jazzkammer rolls ambient noise under crisp static on “Silver Spider Morning,” splitting the difference between melody and absence into something else entirely. Spunk flips high frequency tweets and twaddles into a magnificent synth piece, resounding over clever drums. Svalastog is Spunk’s darker cousin; “Feil Remix” Two Lone Swordsman’s its way out of the speakers, it’s percussion crisp and precise and a bit painful, teeth knocking into one another. Maja Ratkje condenses Roger Waters and Ron Geesin’s The Body into a listenable moment of giddy noise. Scribbled voices and heavy breathing are run through the Ellen Allien vocal filter, and while I always find this stuff interesting (on Mothers of Invention albums, for example), here it seems the voices have purpose beyond noise or clutter, and tiny melodies seem to be produced by their pairings.

The collection starts with Fartein Valen’s “The Churchyard by the Sea,” as beautiful as any other music we dub “modern classical,” and probably more classical in the classical sense. Strings pirouette through slow melodies and counter-melodies, and the production almost makes audible the sounds of fingers scraping on bows scraping on strings. Valen nests loving melodies in the middle of a route of dismal cadences. The piece is paired with Arne Nordheim’s “Pace”; the two sound nothing alike except in tone, and it’s a beautiful reminder that different palettes often end up with similar results. The shimmering mid-section of “Pace” could be the icy cave in which the component parts of “Churchyard” first fermented; the stray notes of “Churchyard” excised become the minimal bounty of “Pace.”

Supersilent is paired with Scorch Trio and MoHa! I’ve already said a lot about the latter group, and here “B1” screams from the scenery like the beast it is. Scorch Trio removes the guitar and adds bass and synth to the MoHa! formula, more Herbie Hancock than Wadada, more Don Preston than Masayuki Takayanagi. LP3 begins with Alog’s _E2-E4_-like synth programs distending into long, soothing cadences. Skyphone picks up where Alog left off; “In Our Time” is a beautiful surprise from one of the few artists I hadn’t heard previously. All vocoders and acoustic guitar, it’s a song that requires candles and possibly a nice cup of green tea. Phonophani rumbles into place, finishing off the record by re-inserting some of the tension from Alog. LP4’s first side is revelatory. Nils Økland builds “Månelyst” from scraps and stray line noises into an enchanting piece; Arve Henrikson’s short segue takes us from that electronic composition into the warmly acoustic world of Food’s “Daddycation.” Reeds and bass are transformed into a jazz orchestration so lush you can feel the breath condensing on your face. Susanna and the Magic Orchestra follows on side two; the only piece on the set with lyrics, this is RG’s “pop”: the music slow and peaceful, her voice utterly devastating.

The whole collection ends with Deathprod’s “Twin Decks,” a quiet, claustrophobic piece that breathes dark synth noises and sounds dismal. It’s a testament to the strength of RG’s roster that this funeral dirge can end this celebration without sounding like the death knell it is. Here, it becomes the aftershocks—the pieces and bits—from which all the other songs were constructed, and it becomes evident that this label understands the mathematics of music in a very real way. Until Human Voices Wake Us and We Drown is the textbook they’re using to teach us that music means nothing more than the way we organize sound, and therefore it is a testament both to innovation and beautiful song composition, and also to the necessity of small labels like this in fostering progressive environments. After all, without shit like this, where would your Radioheads and Wilcos be? Just creeps; not creepy.