John Twells’ Xela moniker has taken an interesting turn for the grotesque. Granted the recordings have never been sunny – even his glitchy debut For Frosty Mornings and Summer Nights had a tinted tone to it – but his latest musical endeavors have all been focused on the ominous. The Dead Sea‘s Argento-inspired zombies-at-sea narrative, crafted impeccably with eerie electronic noise, was impressive. But it pales in comparison to the asphyxiation of Il Bocca Al Lupo (the traditional Italian phrase “in the wolf’s mouth,” meaning good luck in the most dire situations).
The Dead Sea‘s queasiness was generated by Twells’ loosely structured use of gloomy samples. But no matter how lost you became in the foggy sway of that album, it doesn’t even approach the encompassing effluvium of In Bocca Al Lupo. There was always a glimmer of hope with The Dead Sea: a bit of light reflecting off the water in the form of a lightly plucked melody between acts. Not so with In Bocca Al Lupo: the door is nailed, the casket is six feet deep and all you can hear is the dirt being shoveled onto the hollow wood and the deafening buzz of panic in your ears.
Twells’ apparent fear of desolate cellars and distant church bells are represented heavily in his nightmare. For the entire 60 minutes, it feels like there is a rushing, breeze-like hum trying to find its way out of the catacombic recording. And for the first three movements, the only other faintly melodic sound comes from the foreboding ring of bells. At times, they recall the heavily resonating metal bells of the European Christian Churches; in other spots, they feel more tribal, like that you might hear nervously shaken at a pagan ritual. Either way, they are only signals of grim to come.
The talent in all this gloomy music is not Twells’ use of creepy sounds (guitar feedback-turned-banshee scream, echoes of fiery pulpit preaching, lulling electronic buzz, etc.); it’s his conveyance of such an imaginative emotion without any narrative at all. He somehow inserts drama into what otherwise would just be a bunch of agitating noise, and without the aid of visual stimulus (well, besides the mood-setting artwork). In Bocca Al Lupo is just the environment. Your mind is left to its own devices during the stirring ambiance, which might be the scariest torture of all.