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Prurient - Bermuda Drain

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Artist: Prurient

Album: Bermuda Drain

Label: Hydra Head

Review date: Jul. 18, 2011

One notable trend leitmotiv going on in popular music these days, be it the underground or the mainstream, is the resurgence of the synthesizer, quite possibly the most-maligned instrument in music history (the triangle and the recorder might beg to differ). The synth has been declared dead on more than one occasion since its acceptance to the mainstream in the mid- to late-1960s, most notably when the punks barged onto the scene and raised a middle finger in the general direction of the elder statesmen of rock -- especially the Moog- and Mellotron-loving prog-rockers -- and then again in the mid-’90s, when, after a golden era of synth-based pop, the arbiters of (bad) taste fell head over heels for grunge and Brit-pop with their full-on guitars and laddish swagger, leaving the synth by the wayside.

Of course, it was never going to last. The kids raised on punk got older, to be replaced by fans of Depeche Mode and The Human League, and suddenly the Korgs and Rolands were back, big time. The Killers and The Rapture hit the rock charts, whilst weirdos in their bedrooms toiled away underground, giving us lo-fi, synthetic oddities like Ariel Pink, Oneohtrix Point Never and Sun Araw. And bands like Oneida and Acid Mothers Temple went all Hawkwind on us, with spacy bleeps and bloops added to hard-edged metal clang. With the Internet opening up more and more horizons, it was no wonder every style and instrument would soon be being resurrected, melded and mashed together. The days of ardent pop/rock/metal dogma are surely over, replaced by artists, journos and bloggers who will happily mix some R&B into their death metal. And in such a heady environment of cross-pollination and experimentation, the synth was always bound to reign supreme: It conjures sounds heretofore unimaginable.

That said, I didn’t see something like Bermuda Drain coming. Noise music, of which Prurient’s Dominic Fernow is one of the foremost artists, has rarely been a genre where you could find airy, soaring Korg melodies or the infectious patter of a Linn drum machine. It’s not made for dancing, or to bob your head to, as synth pop largely is. It’s not relaxing in the way ambient or New Age is. As Paul Hegarty notes in his seminal Noise/Music: A History, noise music is completely and utterly defined by what it’s not: accessible, melodic, pleasant… Synth music largely is (unless you’re running that Korg through a bank of distortion pedals, of course).

Which means Fernow is being remarkably brave with his latest release. Bermuda Drain is surely one of the most remarkable attempts in recent years to propel noise into fresh territories. It’s not a resounding success, but, as with Neil Young or Lou Reed, I always admire artists who dare to confound the expectations of their fans. Fernow does this in spades.

Bermuda Drain bears the influence of Fernow’s recent work with gloom-pop monger Wesley Eisold of Cold Cave. Synths dominate: crystalline, graceful and clean. He cheekily disguises the shift in direction by opening with a raging primal roar and untamed digital noise on “Many Jewels Surround the Crown.” He clearly has more of a sense of humor than first meets the eye, for this meaty opening quickly fades into elegant, icy, synth patterns and spoken word, typically oblique and sinister lyrics about freezing temperatures and death. The former wouldn’t be out of place on Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack.

Surprisingly, the album’s New Age-y pieces are the most successful ones, their subtle melodies and muted keyboards carrying much the same piercing gravitas and sense of doom that characterizes the best of Prurient’s more vicious earlier noise output. The synths may feel like they could have been lifted from an early OMD album, and some of the vocals are almost beyond camp (then again, there has always been something theatrical and over-the-top about Prurient), but a sense of dread and menace permeates these tracks like a somber mist.

Where Bermuda Drain loses potency is on the shorter, pacier tracks, such as “A Meal Can Be Made,” where a driving drum machine and unintelligible, mangled vocals, send Fernow far too close to the overblown nonsense of Nine Inch Nails; meanwhile, “Palm Tree Corpse” features rather silly lyrics about inserting tree branches into a person, slowly building into an overblown scream. Perhaps Fernow is hedging his Cold Cave tendencies with a dose of Power Electronics, of which he was always a direct descendent. The move fits, given that, by definition, bands like Whitehouse and Sutcliffe Jugend relied on synths, albeit of the most extreme variety.

Bermuda Drain may not match the glory of Prurient’s masterpieces Black Vase and Pleasure Ground. It may not be wholly successful in its attempts to marry clean synth music with harsh noise. Whatever the case, it’s a courageous move, and one that shows moments of emotional depth unheard of in noise music.

By Joseph Burnett

Other Reviews of Prurient

Black Vase

Pleasure Ground


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