Sheer Hellish Miasma
evin Drumm is a man who knows his noise. In his early prepared guitar improv days, Drumm crafted sparse and splinter-laden landscapes that owed a greater debt to the particle-splatter aesthetic of Peter Rehberg than the flutters and growls of Keith Rowe. Unsatisfied with the seemingly infinite palette of sounds wrenched from his horizontal Fender Mustang, Drumm expanded his arsenal of noise generators to include rumbling reel-to-reel tape manipulations, laptop abstractions, and all forms of analog synthesizer abuse. Both his improvisation and his composed-in-the-studio work now teems with the jagged scratches of his earlier work and the drones of his later death metal minimalism as the music veers wildly through extremes of pitch and dynamic. So when Kevin Drumm promises you Sheer Hellish Miasma , you had best take him at his word.
For his first record for the aforementioned Peter Rehberg’s Mego imprint, Kevin Drumm draws upon all the tricks gathered in his young and already distinguished career to deliver a richly layered assembly of unsettling feedback washes and gut-rumbling bass currents. The title and stark faux-gothic artwork speaks volumes about the musical content of Sheer Hellish Miasma -- the record is stark, ominous, dark, and surrounded in allusion to metal-style savagery. The extreme volume at which Sheer Hellish Miasma is mastered and the music’s violent intensity recalls the work of Merzbow, yet Drumm’s deconstructions favor gritty, stomach shaking bass tones to Masami Akita’s upper-frequency white noise assaults. Also unique to Drumm is the refreshing sense of tongue-in-cheek humor – see the “crank it!” playback instructions in the liner notes for just one example – that pervades his audio onslaughts and saves his music from the angst-laden hubris of other noise artists. This is not to say that Sheer Hellish Miasma is by any means a humorous record; instead, the humor is as dark and menacing as the musical landscape, a complement to the brooding noise offensive instead of a foil.
Album-opener “Turning Point” begins with ten microscopic blips before erupting into a fuzzed-out maelstrom of bass frequencies seeping from a badly wounded analog synth. Granular flecks of sound hover above the mire and the drone collapses into thudding stutters before a shriek of feedback guitar cuts the piece short just as the sounds begin to gather direction. The sudden stop is as misanthropically cynical and arbitrary as the track’s brutal beginning and will either summon hangman’s smiles from the listener or sighs of exasperation. In either case, the moment of silence serves to set up the thunderous rumbling of “Hitting the Pavement,” a twenty-minute exploration of ultra-distorted timbres and glacier-paced filter manipulations. The sound is Tony Conrad’s drones as covered in a thousand years of rust and decay, a cycling between unearthly rumbles and howling feedback whose volume and density lend a black hole gravity to the proceedings. Reminiscent of the two chord mantras on Drumm’s excellent Comedy but without the periodicity, “Hitting the Pavement” unfurls too-slow-to-be-rhythmic timbral shifts and coarse, enveloping overdrive to create an environment that is at once suffocating and hypnotic, while the creeping pace draws attention to each fluctuation in distortion and the gradually unfolding structure. Expertly paced and packed with eardrum agitating grit, these two tracks serve as something of an extended warm-up for the true barrage that will follow.
Let there be no question that “The Inferno” lives up to the audacity of its title. For twenty-four minutes, “The Inferno” bombards the ear with grating frequencies – generally of indeterminate origin – as it writhes through a succession of murky drones, ray gun sinew waves, and sharp-edged scratches shrouded in an omnipresent haze of static. Whereas “Hitting the Pavement” gathered its visceral presence from its hovering, oppressive stasis, “The Inferno” draws on the comparatively rapid-fire succession of sounds crushed and corrupted in the tracks steamroller progression. Snippets of Drumm’s trademark guitar abrasions dart from channel to channel nearly out of the reach of audibility as if to flee the torrential buzz and clamor crowding the forefront. If played at sufficiently ear-damaging volume, one will detect fragments of vocal transmissions, feedback from desolated guitars, and agitated synthesizer flutters peeking from the chaos, only to be dragged back into the simulated torments of hell and pummeled into back into their primordial components. The crescendo preceding the track’s final immolation is nothing short of breathtaking – a genuinely unsettling shriek from dying machinery, ebbing to a final shuddering synth rattle that crawls from the wreckage. Drumm follows his chaotic static storm with the wispy “Cloudy,” in which gentle feedback tones fold into delicately rippling swirls that are every bit as soothing as the previous assault was nightmarish. It’s the sound of dust settling on the debris, perhaps a heavenly salvation to reclaim those who survived hellish torment – only to be interrupted by a final granular squelch from one of Drumm’s straggling noise generators.
For fans of Kevin Drumm, Sheer Hellish Miasma is an essential release as it captures Drumm at his most ferocious and most inventive. It’s an exhilarating, visceral test of endurance brimming with demonic humor and a tour of Drumm’s ever-expanding sonic palette that comes closest to the quality of his landmark solo debut album. For seasoned noise veterans, Sheer Hellish Miasma offers a bracing soundscape filled with exquisitely abrasive textures and more than enough hidden detail to warrant repeated listening – a distinct voice in the increasingly same-sounding world of abstract electronic noise. For everyone else, Drumm’s journey through the noisy underworld is likely to inspire fear or, in an optimistic case, fearful admiration. Judging by the tell-all title, the jet-black gothic-lettered CD sleeve, and the blizzard of noise leading to a final, salvation-squelching screech, it’s safe to assume Drumm would have it no other way.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01