A Journal Of The Dark Arts
On Wolf Eyes’ first album of original material in 2 years, Undertow, the infamous Detroit noise trio return with a meditation on timelessness, filth, uncertainty, identity, leather jackets, flesh, and sweat.
Looking up ‘grimey 70s movies’, ‘grimy films’, and a handful of synonyms (‘gritty’ being the #1 alternative) offers up a unique, complicated, compelling cross-section of archival media. Bombed-out visions of late-’70s/early-80s NYC are the most on-display, followed closely by images of mutant-like street gangs – as seen in the cult classic The Warrios or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – working girls; street toughs in leather jackets; drug addicts in tiny, squalid hotel rooms; and a cavalcade of retrofuturistic sci-fi, from Logan’s Run to A Clockwork Orange; to degraded stills from Polaroids and old VHS/Betamaxx cartridges.
This cross-section of images and references actually makes a pretty decent introduction into the murky, mercurial world of Wolf Eyes. Part violent, degraded, rubble-strewn, sexual, and dangerous – part mystical, empowering, enlightened, sensual, and free. Like a soundtrack for any number of literary interzones – from the nonsensical slipstream of Samuel R. Delaney‘s Dhalgren, complete with shapeshifting bisexual gang bangs; Burroughs’ paranoid COINTELPRO drug hallucinations; and the both sterile and corrupted worlds of J. G. Ballard.
In the day, Wolf Eyes releases were fast and furious, making it difficult to say, even close to definitively, what exactly they were going for. It seemed slightly confusing, to unitiated ears, connecting the dots from Nate Young‘s blasted horrorscore electronics to Aaron Dilloway‘s microtonal Nepalese sax mantras. Maybe it’s just that more time has passed, but with Wolf Eyes only releasing an album every couple of years, it’s easier to unravel the tangled skein and discern a narrative.
If Undertow were a movie, it would be more Dogma 95/slice-of-life existentialism than greasy slasher pic. If Harmony Korine‘s Trash Humpers and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas were to have a mumblecore baby with an Adam Wingard drop shadow, its score might sound a lot like Undertow.
“Undertow” kicks things off, serving as a metaphysical banner to shadow interpretations, seeing as how it’s also the album title. Short, sweet, ominous but also transcendent, with Young narrating a life on the outside – whether literally or metaphorical is up to your interpretation – and the transitory, liminal mentality it fosters. “I spent too much time outside/I never seem the same,” with a peaceful, plodding bassline drifting along like a leaf on a lazy river over spiraling squawks of Dilloway’s trance-inducing flutes and woodwinds. “I spent too much time looking for an answer/Wondering if I’d ever grow old.”
Living outside the mainstream, on the margins of poverty and madness, creates an isolated state, bordering on the sublime. It is like being invisible, being nameless, having little agency in this world, like a kind of ghostly half-life. You get less corporeal by the second, losing definition, fading…. it can feel like the Earth is just waiting to swallow you whole. And you want to let it.
This dissolution, this succumbing, seems to be central to Undertow‘s theme. It is the sound of pay-by-the-hour hotel rooms transformed into portable ashram, with the air conditioner and detuned television becoming both mantra and call-to-prayer.
Wolf Eyes have always straddled the line between the bestial and the transcendent. This is mysticism for street toughs, for lunatics in black shades, brandishing straight, polished blades. If Marlon Brando’s roles from A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild Ones, and Apocalypse Now were to be meshed in Seth Brundle’s transmogrifier, start a trancepunk band and journey towards Tibet in search of Shangri La, this would be what their existentialist meltdown might sound like.
Wolf Eyes speak to a different kind of meditation, a brute kind of spirituality. It is the zen of sitting in one’s own sweat, counting the cracks on the ceiling, trancing out the oscillating fan. It reminds us that the seemingly simple are often deep and complex, as well as encouraging us to dig deeper into still, silent waters. Wittgenstein was a bicycle repairman for a long time, we must remember, and not everyone is great at expressing their feelings (or even knowing they have them).
For those that dig leather jackets and homemade tattoos as much as The Book Of Thoth or The Sacred Magick Of Abramelin The Mage, this is yr new ritual soundtrack!
And, as always, as ever, i call upon my readers collective expertise and wisdom – what are some good grimey movies you’d recommend, apart from the ones mentioned above? Looking for as many as possible, to trace this hard-to-pin-down aesthetic.
Likewise, what are some other noise/industrial/experimental acts that have a spiritual angle/goal, but go about it in a confrontational or abrasive way? Wanting to flesh out this Feral Zen tag, towards the eventual goal of a book idea i’ve had for a long time!
And, finally, what other Wolf Eyes or related albums should i review? They’re one of the original inspirations of the 66.6 series, where we try to make sense of both hyper-prolific artists and genres, beginning with the simple premise, “What makes for a great noise album?”
Undertow is out now on Wolf Eyes’ own Lower Floor. Get it digitally or on vinyl or CD from Norman Records.
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Tune into every Sunday night/Monday morning for Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness @ Freeform Portland! Exploring the dark side of techno, hip-hop, shoegaze, metal, psych, folk, and soundtrack. You can listen to the archives online at mixcloud.com/for3stpunk.