The Dead Sea
By Mark Abraham | 16 October 2006
From the harsh ink pen scrawls that adorn the sleeve (courtesy of artist Matthew Woodson rocking shades of Nurse With Wound or Naked City) or a brief glimpse at the track titles (“Creeping Flesh,” “Sinking Cadavers”) you’d assume The Dead Sea would be another attempt at sonic apocalypse, right? The punch line here isn’t that Xela is all roses and glam bouquets, lipping off at apocalypse while applying apple lipstick or, in the current vernacular, “deck,” slipping off the plank of his own irony like the mangled manga drowning figures talking out the sides of their faces (because they have extra mouths); instead, the joke is that the album treads the line between harsh, heady, and heavenly so well that you’ll be hard pressed to work out the difference until you understand the juxtaposition is precisely the point. Those placid clouds in the background (on the cover and in the music); those fading wave patterns that intrude and reside; it’s all mixed into a deliciously sloppy wash where getting lost (or treading water) is the best part. Halfway through “Linseed” when that weird rotating violin lick starts up out of nowhere and, though it remains the most breathless instrument in the mix, simple takes over, I was hooked. I’m still hooked. Call this the electro-acoustic, ambient industrial, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts classic of the year, but spend too much time trying to categorize it and you’re going to miss just how beautiful Xela makes the most dismal things sound.
This is John Twells’s third release as Xela, but here he’s suggested his inspiration is the kinds of horror film soundtracks pioneered by Goblin and Fabio Frizzi. Which is all fine and good, but I’m not sure what’s so scary about “Wet Bones,” with its livery-environmental noise beat and cowboy-themed melody. You can feel the sunset drying those bones as the melodies emerge from the carefully choreographed found sound opening; the song could have been played on Deadwood (R.I.P.) whenever Dan brought Al coffee on the balcony. What makes the album great, though, is the way Twells knocks between different palettes: “Creeping Flesh” pulls a Wendy Carlos on a glut of synth noises by forcing them into a sublime rendering of alien despair while “Savage Ritual” hints a persistent acoustic strum on top of a similar array of noises. The way those synths collapse and coalesce provides the momentum of the song; Twells is wild on the filters but he knows how to decay his sound to complement the abstract narrative of beautified despair he’s creating; he’s not just playing with knobs, in other words, but rather employing the knobs as instruments themselves.
Opener “The Gate” is a bit of a con; everything that the cover promises—the mutilation, the clammy depth, the unstable support of liquid—is delivered in the form of droning synths that themselves descend into blurping splashes and stray spring erosion. Overtop, deep cellos and frayed violins get stretched and dilapidated; like waves, the high end soars when the low end veers, but the cyclic motion is almost sickening (especially if you listen to this on a rainy, overcast day, as I did the first time I put in on, and Bloor Street became a land of zombies and werewolves). But even if you didn’t notice the cute melancholy lurking in that murk, “Linseed” collapses the grave ambience with fluttering bells, stoic acoustic guitar, and rumbles that combine into a pool of rippling melodies and subtle distortion. It’s really fantastically done, and Twells should be commended for his sense of restraint as much as his ability to fit such ill-formed puzzle pieces together.
Of course, with all this focus on mood and tone, you tend to get overlapping ideas, and while Twells is excellent at navigating the light of gloom in each individual track, stretching the gloom over the length of an album wears it a bit thin. “A Floating Procession” again employs the thudding percussion that anchors some of the earlier tracks, but it (and “Sinking Cadavers,” a mass of chime noises) seem more like placeholders than fully formed ideas—a way to separate the brilliance of “Savage Ritual” and “Humid at Dusk.” This latter is like the Charalambides on speed, throwing that reverby jazz/country guitar over a spate of found percussion that crinkles in the background until guitar overdubs appear. Sine waves cricket to themselves in the background, thick billows of distortion glisten low in the mix, and piercing squalls of feedback siren overtop. I can’t quite tell if this is all done with a phrase sampler, but it certainly decays that way, as the earlier, more contemplative sounds get drowned (and resolved) by their louder successors, until everything subsides in a dull hum.
The close of the album, if anything, is closest to the gore promised by the package. “Watching a Light in the Distance” is all squiggly feedback and, other than a synth (or maybe a theremin) in the background, we don’t get hints of light here, but rather heavy breathing, mutilated mouths, and lungs filled with water. The segue into “Briefly Seen” is barely noticeable, beyond the fact that there is rhythm now: a duet of funk bass blurps (I kid you not) and damp strings. The nautical clangs underneath are maybe a bit much, but the deluge fades into a demure melody that unfolds itself like a strip show, each clasp unlocking itself slowly, each windsor knot unwinding like a Medusa head.
There are teeth and stones here, yes, and for the most part they carry welts and pains gloriously, but at times the gothic embrace of this album—so long and so slippery—can feel a bit forced, if not overly coy. That said, the album certainly gets its subject, and works it spectacularly. Gloom is, after all, both a product of the most mundane and spectacular sources, but the difficulty of dealing with pain is the same either way, which is the reality I think this album is most effective at conveying. Whether due to catastrophe or the simply commonplace, that sense of feeling apart from the world is like drifting aimlessly, and The Dead Sea captures the horror and beauty of cordoning oneself off: you get your solace, you get your loneliness, you get your tears, but the drama is always a little enticing, too.