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Drew McDowall, "Unnatural Channel"

cover imageDrew McDowall’s second solo album for Dais is a bit of a surprise detour from 2015's more Coil-esque Collapse, largely abandoning the melodicism and eerie moods of its predecessor in favor of more fragmented and disorienting fare.  Many of these pieces ambiguously ride the line between bold evolution and perplexing regression, as McDowall's previously clear vision sounds broken and deconstructed into a miasma of lurching percussion, throbbing drones, and clattering metallic textures. As such, I had to re-calibrate my expectations a bit, but Unnatural Channel get points for taking chances and not going back to the same well a second time.  While I am not sure if Unnatural Channel comes at all close to realizing McDowall's potential, it is certainly an oft-compelling experiment, resembling a well-produced homage to the golden age of the noise/experimental cassette underground.


The opening "Tell Me The Name" initially starts the album on a deceptively subdued note, as the first minute or so is consumed with disjointed, cavernous, and brooding moans and a slow, erratic rhythm of electronic blurts, hollow clangs, and washes of hiss.  Gradually, the individual components of that pulse get closer together and cohere into a heavy, stumbling groove with viscerally pounding percussion.  Almost before I even realize what a cool trick McDowall has pulled off, however, the piece dissipates once more into fitful dark ambient abstraction.  To a large degree, that strange trajectory sets the tone for the whole album, as McDowall returns again to deep, heavy grooves weaved together from seemingly unrelated materials, but deems his work complete once he reaches that point and goes no further.  That aesthetic certainly has its appeal, as a piece like "Habitat" sounds menacing, futuristic, and inhuman.  However, it is quite a constrained vision to explore, causing much of Unnatural Channel to feel like slight variations on a single theme (though that theme admittedly sounds like it would be the perfect soundtrack for some kind of Terminator-esque mechanized apocalypse).

Naturally, the most memorable moments tend to be those where McDowall adds some twists or surprises to his "lumbering robotic menace" template.  One such highlight is "This is What It’s Like," which culminates in a creepy, insistent loop of Roxy Farman's voice whispering "this is what it’s like…sleep-deprived" over a clanging and shuddering march of buzzing electronics and metallic percussion.  Elsewhere, "Unnatural Channel (Part 2)" combines its crunching, stomping juggernaut of a groove with a fairly straightforward and melodic pulse to create a shambling and grotesque caricature of synthpop.  Wetware's Farman surfaces yet again on the all-too-brief closer "Unshielded," which conclusively steals the show with its deranged swirl of animal whoops, nerve-jangling chopped and overlapping vocal snatches, pounding low end, and snarls of grinding electronics.  It feels like a full-on nightmare set in some kind of cyberpunk jungle.  Also, in a perverse way, the extreme brevity is kind of an asset, as "Unshielded" packs a perfect visceral punch, then abruptly leaves me reeling and wondering what the hell just happened.

As with Collapse, Unnatural Channel feels like the work of an artist with a lot of great ideas that don't always translate into complete, fully formed songs.  It is hard to say whether or not McDowall has evolved as a composer since his debut, as strong melodic or harmonic motifs are in noticeably short supply here.  However, many of these songs have quite an inventive and deftly executed dynamic arc, even if the song always seems to quickly come to an end once the rabbit is out of the hat and the rhythm is fully established.  As a result, I cannot tell if Unnatural Channel is just a series of cool (if a bit baggy) modular synth jams that never went further or if we have instead entered McDowall’s bold new Percussion Phase.  Whichever it is, "Unshielded" is the current zenith of this direction, unleashing a wonderful and unhinged cacophony that starts at full power and ends long before it overstays its welcome.  Aside from that, Unnatural Channel is primarily enjoyable as just a feast of heavy industrial textures and inventive rhythms, resembling field recordings from a monstrous, rumbling factory floor in a bleakly dystopian and inhuman future.