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Elizabeth Cottern, "Heschl's Gyrus"

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cover imageI recently stumbled upon this bizarre debut during an especially deep Bandcamp plunge and it is deliciously unlike anything else that I have ever heard.  Both the artist and the label are shrouded in a decent amount of mystery, but Heschl's Gyrus draws its inspiration from Cottern's fascination with "psychical auditory phenomena."  Stylistically, she builds her harrowing auditory hallucinations from heavy, earthy drones akin to Richard Skelton's recent work, but builds them to crescendos that often feel like a swirling and feverish psychotic break from reality.  Sometimes it can be beautiful, but the true genius of this album lies in the profoundly disturbing, alien, and intensely uncomfortable heights reached by pieces of "Akoasm II."

Other Forms of Consecrated Life

No one will ever question Elizabeth Cottern's commitment to a theme, as this album not only borrows its name from the structure that houses the auditory cortex, but it consists of three numbered akoasms (a neurological term for auditory hallucinations).  For its first few minutes, however, Heschl's Gyrus just feels like an atypically heavy, gnarled, and blackened drone album, slowly fading in as a hollow roar swarmed by submerged squalls of sputtering static.  Gradually though, a slow-moving and elegiac melody begins drifting over the top and Cottern’s previously simmering battery of heavy textures overpowers the underlying drones.  It is a compelling juxtaposition, as there is a lovely, dreamlike, and poignant "song" drifting through a haze, yet the roiling maelstrom beneath is the part that sneakily becomes the real focus.  It unexpectedly calls to mind the oceanic shoegaze of Lovesliescrushing, as a glimpse of gorgeous, shimmering heaven seems to be fighting through a gale of roiling, sizzling cacophony.  It is quite a stellar and epic piece, capturing Cottern at her most conventionally beautiful and comparatively accessible.  The brilliant "Akoasm II" that follows, however, is clear evidence that accessibility is the least of her concerns.

Right from the start, "Akoasm II" is a disturbingly intense and challenging piece of music, as its simple structure of bleary drones is instantly disrupted by a nightmarish swirl of sickly, sliding synth tones.  I am tempted to describe them as "shrill," but it would be more accurate to say that they have a visceral sharpness that creates an acute sense of deep discomfort.  Unlike its predecessor, the underlying composition is not a significant part of the draw–there are some piano chords and a strange, rippling melody of harmonics, but those structured elements mostly just provide glimpses of an impossibly distant shore as I am enveloped by a lysergic sea of bubbling, swooping textures and ugly shifting harmonies.  As someone who spends much of his time seeking out singularly strange and transcendent sounds, I can honestly say that Cottern's feverish miasma of strange gurgles and nightmarish glissandi is a deep mindfuck like no other.  Whenever I hear it, I feel like I am trapped in a sensory deprivation tank and rapidly losing my grip on sanity, which is certainly an exquisite sensation.  It is also an hopelessly impossible act to follow, so Cottern wisely heads in a somewhat different direction with the epic final piece.  Clocking in at slightly over 30 minutes, "Akoasm III" is a bit more structured than its predecessors, unfolding as a sparse, repeating piano melody.  Naturally, however, the real show is elsewhere, as a dense swirl of oscillating harmonies hovers above everything and steadily gathers power.  Eventually, it becomes almost every bit as warped and absorbing as "Akoasm II," but it is a more nuanced and slow-building  experience, resembling a slow submersion into the otherworldly rather than being absolutely flattened by a nightmarishly psychedelic truck.

Obviously, I am quite curious about who Elizabeth Cottern might be, as Heschl’s Gyrus seems impossibly audacious, inventive, and sharply realized for an "unknown artist" with "no previous discography."  Even if it is a pseudonym, I have no idea who would have both the musical ability and the depth of acoustic/neurological knowledge necessary to create something like this: Cottern takes drone music to a viscerally unnerving and otherworldly plane while simultaneously manipulating frequencies and overtones with the precision of a scalpel.  It is a singular vision executed beautifully.  In fact, this album genuinely feels like the culmination of someone's life's work rather than some secret side-project, so maybe Elizabeth Cottern is a real person after all.  Whoever she is, I am damn glad she exists, as Gyrus completely blindsided me: this is an overwhelming, enveloping, and absolutely nerve-fraying delirium of an album.  Instant classic.

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Last Updated on Monday, 12 February 2018 20:09  


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