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Kevin Drumm - Sheer Hellish Miasma

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Artist: Kevin Drumm

Album: Sheer Hellish Miasma

Label: Mego

Review date: Aug. 19, 2002

Sheer Sonic Irreverence

Whenever an interview with Kevin Drumm crops up (which is relatively often, inasmuch as any purveyor of emblazoned post-industrial noise is a hot critical property), the resulting articles have always proved slightly off-kilter. The general context he finds himself in is itself highly theoretical, and yet his rather idiosyncratic resume, spanning improvisation, tonal drone, and even the one-off anti-pop collaboration with Gastr del Sol, speaks sufficiently to a general disregard of genre. But as for any directly personal insight in the interview process, Drumm cultivates a type of placid reticence, not so much inarticulate as baffled by his very accomplishments. It’s a pleasant conundrum, really, for the music itself defies verbal accountability, a primordial concoction that belies chaos and focus as strangely inherent bedmates.

Suitably, Drumm has found his way onto some of the more interesting conceptual releases of the past year: he scored a collaboration in music concrete with German electronic composer Ralf Wehosky for the Selektion label, and later contributed to Jim O’Rourke’s massed version of Phill Niblock’s Guitar too, for four. His new release Sheer Hellish Miasma is his first for Mego, best known for its laptop-centric output of noise and syncopated mayhem. To some degree, Drumm follows suit with his own addition of digital assistance, and the result is a more eclectic work than much of his previous solo material. Yet, what seems at first to be a collection of haphazardly arranged soundscapes is among the more cohesive entries in the recent noise canon. Mass and density are the only consistent criteria on Sheer Hellish Miasma, while the metaphysics of Drumm’s internal logic, framed by mathematical structure, bridge compositional disparity en route to cathartic volume.

It would be misleading to characterize the sounds on the disc as anything other than shards of scraping noise, the textural equivalent of bare knuckle on stucco. Drumm’s objective is not to refine these edges but to revel within, to move through a microscopic sphere that is alternately viscous and frantic. The recording is mastered at an exceedingly high level, an effect that is immediately disorienting but seeks ultimately to reveal the intricacies of sound, the way drone minimalism becomes a cacophony of reverberating tones under scrutiny. Yielding all manner of processed guitar and digital frippery, Sheer Hellish Miasma moves through walls of dense, static sound, electro-acoustic fiddling, and fractured anti-rhythms, but always with an ethos to reconcile his multiplicity of source material with pure, pervasive sound. Indeed, it would be difficult to distinguish one instrument from another in the mix, and near impossible to extract any single component, so deeply interwoven is the disc’s resonance.

A study in sonic capacity and aural symmetry, Sheer Hellish Miasma wraps two expansive compositions with two shorter and comparatively gentler tracks. The first opus, “Hitting the Pavement,” fronts a vague and dissonant melody against grainy, static texture. Drumm’s feedback canvas is integrated and occasionally foregrounded in the piece, while pitch oscillations between high and low derive a vaguely cinematic melody from the guitar and effects. The whole thing could be a loop if it weren’t the product of pseudo-organic chaos, and while it does impart a certain contemplative mood in its repetition, I would be hesitant to qualify the effect as ambient. Drumm’s recordings never seek to work any specific atmospheric angle, at least in as much as they don’t comment on environmental periphery. Nothing exists outside of Drumm’s music, self-contained by the parameters of stereo fidelity, room architecture, and physics, but really little else; attention span and distraction potential aren’t an issue with any sincere form of noisecore, and Drumm’s entry is no exception.

The 20-minute “Pavement” is a sort of locus for the record; it imbues a stasis that will resurface in the gorgeous austerity of “Cloudy,” the ambient post-script to the disc, and it works to mirror the second major piece of Sheer Hellish Miasma. In technique, “Inferno” is everything “Hitting the Pavement” is not: fluid, discernibly composite, and psychotically transitional. There is a slight return to the shuffling beat textures that mark the beginning of the record, and the alleged advent of a trumpet, though not in any of the traditional trappings of the brass family of instruments. The composition bears more structural similarity to Drumm’s early improvisational work for prepared guitar, only without the spacing endemic to live improv. Each passage in “Inferno” carries the same density as the rest of the album, but the shifts are more abrupt, the material still more pulsing and abrasive than that which precedes it. And yet, as if to relent, or at least to reward the headphone masochist who made it through the track’s 23-minute mark, “Inferno” gives way to a single chord of modulating feedback, and dissolves, a coda of quietude in respect to its isolation.

In some ways a distinctly American emissary of the noise contingency, Drumm arrives somewhere between the cross-pollinating and trans-generational ranks of the avant-garde and the meanderings of the noise-collage cassette underground. If Sheer Hellish Miasma is any kind of barometer, it’s exactly the middle ground he’s looking for. The DIY aesthetic informs his compositions only to a point, but neither are they strictly academic recordings. Equal parts confrontation and contemplation, Drumm seems to view sentiment as he does genre, as both potential and potentially limiting; but when the frayed ends of feedback and effect meet split nerves, and only a driving sound remains, it’s possible that intention doesn’t matter all that much.

By Tom Roberts

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