Thinking drummers are to be treasured. Not just the sparky virtuosi cast up by jazz and progressive rock – clear and plain equals to anyone whom they share a stage with. Nor even just those examples of drummer-plus such as Levon Helm or Gary Husband, for whom drumming is just a part of their all-round musicianship, and hence nourishes (and is nourished by) everything else they strum, press, blow or sing.
Here and now, I’m talking about the drummers who get so involved with the idea of pure sound in itself that they down sticks (in some cases permanently), and sail away to pursue it. Mick Harris, for example, who quit Napalm Death and thrash metal in order to explore deep industrial noise and beatless drones with Scorn and Lull. Drummers’ projects in this vein don’t seem to have the half-hearted taint of similar work by guitarists or keyboard players. Maybe the physical immediacy of drumming, from big bangs to stroked whispers, breed a special restraint and particular listening skills – a sensitivity to how air moves and responds to touch.
Within Houston’s underground music scene Lance Higdon is best known for driving various math rock, improvisation, noisecore and psychedelic projects via superb kit-work. With Soaring On Their Pinions, his musical imagination moves him away from the drums – though probably not permanently. As Harris did in his ‘Murder Ballads’ collaboration with Martyn Bates, Higdon has turned to reworking traditional folk and liturgical songs via beatless ambient electronics. Where his method differs is that his electronics are, in effect, inaudible. Unlike the dark, low wind-noise of Harris’ machines, Higdon’s can only be detected by the imprints and embossing which they leave in other sounds. Specifically, he’s sifting and sampling the unaccompanied singing voices of women, getting deep into the grain in search of textures and fragments which he can then build back to the song. In some ways, it’s a nod back to the 1950s and the electro-acoustic methods of musique concrete, but it has a particular purity. No other sound sources – just the singing and what can be teased out of it.
At the heart of this debut single is the first of his guests-cum-raw-material – Atlantan mezzo-soprano Whitney Drury. She sings the Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The original Latin title is kept, but the sung words are English. Drury’s delivery is sung straight and beautifully, with a lone candle-flame clarity. It’s also thoroughly American, with a creamy Southern curve to her “r”s. and “o”s. Is that relevant? Perhaps – if you consider that Soaring On Their Pinions is about layering, and that even before Higdon begins his own work on this particular song he is dealing with a long tradition of accretion.
As a song, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel can look back over a thousand years of travel: from Hebrew and Latin antiphon through Franciscan hymn to the muscular piety of Victorian Anglicans. Anyone taking it on is joining a lengthy queue of interpretations. A Christian favourite, the song has almost become a cliché, with everyone getting in on the act: robed Episcopalians, clean-shaven New Agers with check shirts and acoustic guitars, even Whitney Houston (who gospelled up a version with Take 6 in 2003). It’s hardly less popular to secular ears, sparking (or surviving) multiple interpretations even recently (by Enya, North Sea Radio Orchestra and even metalcore heroes August Burns Red).
Perhaps mindful of this, Higdon’s treatment doesn’t make any attempt to dig into or smooth over tradition. Instead he rediscovers the song from the base level of Drury’s vocal. The latter may start off clean and polished and contemporary (like air-conditioning and throat-care capsules). Yet as Higdon shaves, clones and reattaches fragments from it, he shapes and reveals something more ancient: something which could have wafted from a lonely hermit’s cell. He buoys the vocal up on cellular flutters of transposed echo – first arresting it, later turning it into a kind of slipped, arrested madrigal. He enshrines it in a subtle crypt of reverb. He steals and multiplies Drury’s sibilants, feeding them back past her in fuzzy air-serpents of susurration. Later on, distorted shreds of voice, crushed beyond recognition, waft through the song like smuts: while higher shreds tap out a shattered, stuttering Morse.
Yet ultimately Higdon’s a gatherer, not a harrower – respecting the song and the singer even as he refracts it. Such is the serene melodic beauty of the original that it’s easy to miss that it’s actually a desperate prayer for deliverance: a call for a Messiah to revitalise law, to destroy tyranny and captivity, to open up Heaven. In other words, it’s a spiritual protest song… or just a spiritual. Higdon’s treatment returns it to that level, while rendering it vulnerable to collapse or corruption. His sound-sculpting surrounds that beauty with loneliness, threat and uncertainty (via loop hazard and eeriness) while retaining its core of beleaguered faith.
Soaring On Their Pinions (featuring Whitney Drury): ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’
Soaring On Their Pinions (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 20th December 2010
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Free download from Bandcamp