Recorded over a five-year period, Érick d’Orion’s baleful album mingles a stern, clinical brutality with unexpected gaps for breathing. A veteran of avant-garde noisemaking since the mid-’90s (via Napalm Jazz, morceaux_de_machines and entanglements with Otomo Yoshihide, Evan Parker and the like) Érick has based the core of his album on “the fatality of a place, or concept.” In effect, he’s created a kind of philosophical haunting.
Erick’s ground-zero meme is Koursk, out of which he plots and illustrates two fateful iterations. For those who don’t know their eastern European history, Koursk (or Kursk) is an ancient, iron-rich city and region of mid-Russia. During World War II, it saw the biggest and bloodiest tank battle in history, sprawling over a month’s duration as the Red Army ground itself to Pyrrhic shards and mince against the Wehrmacht. Under the spades of the defending Russians, the Kursk hills were gouged by thousands of miles of trenches and tank-crippling ditches, while Soviet air-raids pelted the Panzer supply lines. The Soviets triumphed and the Germans were halted, but at the cost of enormous losses of Russian men and machines – all thrown relentlessly into the meat-grinder by Marshal Zhukov and his colleagues in order to defend the motherland.
Fifty-seven years later (and nine years post-Soviet, in 2000) a second Koursk hit the worldwide news – a flagship Russian Federation nuclear submarine, named after the original grim victory. Following explosions in its torpedo chamber, the ‘Koursk’ plunged helplessly to the bottom of the sea. While the crew’s relatives panicked, the Russian authorities rejected international rescue assistance (on the grounds of military secrecy), covered up the disaster, bungled four successive days of rescue attempts and finally accepted help too late. Everyone on board the submarine was long dead by then. Initially, the Russian Admiralty claimed that the crew of the ‘Koursk’ had all perished within minutes of the disaster. It emerged later that many of them had stayed alive and conscious long enough to see the air run out and the water rush in, and that some of them had even had time to write farewell notes for their loved ones. The cause of the explosion was finally traced to a faulty, antiquated torpedo, retained for budget reasons. No one was ever punished or prosecuted – instead, the government spent most of its efforts on condemning the Russian media for negative coverage of the disaster.
Far away from these painful events, it’s easy to moon vacuously about the curse of Koursk, or to make similarly dimwitted puns. It’s also easy to discern a more accurate pattern – a coincidental collage of Russian bloody-mindedness, or of that contradictory mixture of material ruthlessness, fatalism and (in its conspicuous burn-up of lives and resources) jaw-dropping pseudo-potlatch that often characterised Stalinism and Warsaw Pact history. However much personal tragedy was involved, Zhukov and his comrades considered those thousands of burnt-out tanks and crisped bodies littered over the hills of Koursk Oblast in the summer of 1943 to be the necessary dues to be paid for protecting the nation. Given the attritional nature of Hitler and Stalin’s struggle for Russia, perhaps the generals had a point; even if the sheer scale of the death and appalls us in more parsimonious, less blindly patriotic days. It’s less easy to defend the fate of the submarine – first wrecked by institutional incompetence, then clumsily (and unsuccessfully) sacrificed to the public image of Putin’s Russian Federation.
With all of that considered, Erick doesn’t deliver explicit or directly moral judgements on either event nor on any continuum which they might share. Instead (bar that striking cover image of a half-submerged submarine in a welter of blood-streaked water), the details are in the sounds he shapes. Becquerels, for example, is a humming shroud: bassy drones hiccupping, a persistent drizzle of midrange noise. The noise drips and dribbles in, backed by distant grinds and rumbles, circular mechanical gnaws. There are implications here of badly-tuned mechanisms, of radiation slopping into compartments where it doesn’t belong. Chop-ins of explosive industrial drumkit noise become venting spurts; the engine-sounds periodically burst out in short-lived, ominous overruns. The last section is a beautiful warble, smashed into by bursting cogs. There’s no joy in the viciousness on display. There’s just a sense of carelessness being observed and documented, as Erick etches an acidic sonic portrait of breakdown which crowds out and overwhelms personal space, erasing people.
If Becquerels is a bitter salute to the submarine, the nine-plus minutes of Kursk Assault presumably pays tribute to the battle. A square wave tank growl, throbbing its way over random rises and dips and flats, becomes a wash of indiscrimate information leveled out to a crammed, rumpled buzz. Barely distinguishable behind this (in effect, crushed and obscured by the charging machinery) is a folk tune on droning pipes, possibly a Russian volynka. Throughout, scattered vocal syllables are chopped in like broken radio conversation. At the end, a tight cycle of looped pipes and data grind stutters round and round, like something trapped on a wheel.
As with Bequerels, there seems to be a moral edge to the noises here. It’s nothing to do with structured condemnation, nor with redemption. Instead Erick offers a baleful account in sound of the misery of people forced into combat, inside machines that they can’t trust to keep them safe, relying on other people who will let them down or spend them like poker chips. There’s an undercurrent of cramped and sweaty fear in these tones – men crammed into claustrophobic cockpits, waiting for the shells to burst through; men trapped in a crippled steel bottle, fathoms down, listening to the hull shear and the water gush in. The blattering sound also cocks a bitter snook at parade ground pomp. Here, war (and the Cold War) is just an impersonal, perilous sludge.
However, having registered his abstracted judgements, Erick retreats from his implicit moralism to explore different implications. The glitchy thud and staccato arpeggios of Steam And Speed suggest techno, as if Érick was building an impressionist, impasto sketch of a nightclub out of a mulchy bucket of cast-off industrial noises. The namesake being nodded to in the eleven-minute György is presumably György Ligeti, as vocal organum pitches move around behind radio whines and whoops and pell-mell machinery clashes, with disruptive cuts in the piece marked by static spits. After five minutes Érick folds a small choir into the mix, a sampled motet: after that, a man’s voice singing soft and deep and casual. The Ligeti references sift in as the piece moves on – the violent pitch shifts applied to the choir, mimicking Ligeti’s own unsettling choral runs: the deep-buried cosmic skitters buried deep in the mix in the final minutes, beneath the deep and pitchless drone.
Two remaining tracks reference a pair of lurid and controversial art-house films, both of which engaged in studies of morality and nihilism; but if Erick was intending to carry the studies over he’s done so in forms too obscure to plumb. The brief interlude of Man Bites Dog – a flat drone, a squeal and squiggle of static, a hint of hyper-compressed conversation – is straightforward but cryptic (or possibly encrypted). The ugly sibilant shiver of Bad Lieutenant – the album’s longest piece – is a dirty judder of mosquito hiss, behind which slow passes of electrophonica swell like slowed vox-humana organ stops slowed. A gentle pink noise churn runs through the piece, implying slow floods and propellers revolving; there’s a passage of steam-sound, tinny distorted vocal murmurs and dub echoes; an unsettling sweep of what sounds like electrified mice scrabbling and twittering. Later, birdsong echoes over a propeller churn like a shipwreck survivor’s memory – ordnance bangs and mechanical scurf play us out.
The last of this could be a recapitulatory visit to the ‘Koursk’s watery grave, or it might not. Bad Lieutenant has spawned a number of remixes that fail to illuminate a moral dimension: ignoring the context, they simply play with the noises. Martin Tétreault’s mix trims the piece down to a three-minute commodity , gaming it with a tattoo beat of drum-static. Of the two bonus remixes on the download version, Nicholas Bernier’s ten-minute effort retains more of the length but screebles everything with a silvery download skitter and needling, proggy synth cascades like a vintage Galaxians invasion. Robin Fox’s shorter five-minute mix concentrates on adding the missing rhythmatic elements: there’s a faint hip-hop influence in the thudding bass drum and the cut-up bursts of dynamic sound which feed its cat-walking impetus.
What these latter tracks and their reinventions don’t offer are any human conclusions. For a while, listening to this album opened up a window (a questioning and undermining of brute and impersonal power, itself expressed in brute power) which ultimately closed too soon. The noise artistry is impeccable, but I’m left feeling pulled up short: drawn in by a buzzing lasso to ponder a message which fades away too early under the racket.
Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’
Érick d’Orion (self-released, DOR 2013, no barcode)
Released: 21st January 2013
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