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Roly Porter, "Kistvaen"

cover imageAs far as I am concerned, any new release from Roly Porter is a noteworthy event, as he is absolutely not an artist who does anything by half measures. From his bold conceptual themes right down to every single aspect of sound design, each Porter full-length is a masterfully crafted and viscerally heavy statement unlike anything else. For this latest opus, Porter drew inspiration from the ancient burial tombs scattered across the moorlands of southwestern England, envisioning them as a sort of "mirror, or gate in time." In keeping with that fluid vision of time, Kistvaen achieves a distinctive marriage of timeless folk music traditions and cutting-edge production wizardry. While Porter occasionally errs too much on the side of portentous ambient gloom for my liking, Kistvaen reaches some rapturously sublime heights when he focuses on chopping and manipulating the vocals of his talented collaborators.


First thing first: Kistvaen is very much a headphone album for a number of reasons.The main one, of course, lies in the vivid clarity of Porter's sound design: this album is a feast of wonderful sounds and it is very easy to miss all the best moments without sustained, focused attention.Almost as significant, however, is Porter's unusual approach to composition.With casual listening, only the climactic swells of chords stand out as significant, which is a shame because so much fascinating activity takes places in Kistvaen's depths and periphery.I am tempted to say that crafting strong melodies and rich harmonies is not where Porter's strengths lie, but it would be more accurate to say that he simply has other interests that tend to take precedence over that aspect of his work.When he puts his mind to it, he is capable of creating some absolutely gorgeous melodic passages, such as the swooning crescendo of vocal loops and warm pads at the heart of "An Open Door" or the smeared and churning string motif that opens the epic "Passage."While I am not sure how much of Porter’s subversion of traditional compositional structures is by design, it definitely seems like he is devoted primarily to conjuring up immersive and evocative scenes: sometimes those scenes closely resemble music and sometimes less so, yet Porter's vision is always a compelling one.The more musical pieces like "An Open Door" are admittedly the ones that make the strongest first impression, but they are not necessarily always the best pieces (though "An Open Door" is unquestionably an album highlight).

For the most part, however, Kistvaen feels a series of well-produced field recordings from an imagined past that is extremely prone to cataclysmic events.In the opening "Assembly," for example, vocalist Mary-Anne Roberts gives an anguished and sometimes ululating performance over a sparse backdrop of seismic cracks, scraping metal, and rumbling waves of sub bass.Eventually Porter allows some lush, droning chords to creep in, but the overall effect is akin to a devastated widow howling a lament as her burning village collapses around her.In fact, the entire album feels like a series of haunted and bleak vignettes capturing the aftermath of some disaster in an enigmatic, ancient dream world.There are also some glimpses of transcendent beauty lurking within that nightmare though, as the seething, grinding horror of the following "Burial" eventually gives way to a lovely coda of warm strings.Elsewhere, "An Open Door" is the strongest example of Porter's more nakedly beautiful side, as its mournful piano theme blossoms into a deliriously beautiful swirl of warm chord swells and fluttering vocal loops…before erupting into a crushing and intense final crescendo that sounds like the entire world is being ripped apart.Porter follows that feat by approximating a heaving and violent disturbance in the very fabric of reality ("Inflation Field"), then dives wholeheartedly into yet another apocalypse, as "Passage" calls to mind an ancient city being absolutely leveled by an erupting volcano.Curiously, there is a brief interlude in that piece that features an anachronistic, stumbling, and out-of-sync synth motif that resembles deconstructed techno.Even though Porter is now working on an incredibly vast and timeless scale, lingering vestiges of his rave past still find their way into his vision.

The album closes on a unexpectedly radiant note with the lush, elegiac chords of the title piece, though they are bit buffeted by snarls of harsher textures.Nevertheless, "Kistvaen" feels like a poetic ascension at the end of a very disturbing, sad, and bloody story.As with the occasional rave/sound system touches lurking through the album, the heavenly chords of "Kistvaen" feel like a poignant nod to actual moments from Porter's own life, as his daughter currently sings in a church choir.While I cannot say that Porter is especially seamless or subtle in incorporating such disparate influences into his vision, I definitely like that they are there, as they reveal some soul and heart at the core of what could otherwise be a hollow exercise in technical brilliance and pure imagination.Still, the latter are a huge part of Porter's appeal and Kistvaen captures him at the absolute peak of his powers: any imperfections or flashes of bombast seem irrelevant in the face of such a crushing and vivid tour de force.To use a deeply uncharacteristic sports metaphor, Roly Porter swings for the fences every goddamn time and it is absolutely glorious when he connects.

Notably, these pieces were originally created as part of a multimedia performance featuring accompanying images from artist Marcel Weber and that seems like the logical culmination of Porter’s vision: I have often thought that directors should be falling all over themselves to enlist him for soundtrack work, as he seems like he would be uniquely suited for unleashing a climactic sensory overload that would leave filmgoers reeling in their seats as the final credits rolled.I still believe that, of course, but I am delighted that Porter has decided to expand his own vision and apply his formidable firepower to that instead.I hope I someday manage to catch the full majesty of the Kistvaen experience live, but the decontextualized music is quite a memorably intense statement in its own right.

Samples can be found here.