“Tune your television to any channel it doesn’t receive and about one percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”
– Bill Bryson
The universe began 13.8 billion years ago, in a trillion-trillionth of a second, with a horrendous explosion that created space and time itself, as well as everything we identify as our universe.
It’s fitting that duo These Hidden Hands should evoke the creation of the universe with the start of their brilliantly epic second LP Vicarious Memories, since there is nothing more epic than the Big Bang.
The heavy drum thud kicking off the album on “Glasir” decays over the course a minute into an ambient drone, symbolizing quarks forming, matter composing, molecules joining, carbon lifeforms rising. It’s joined by an organ projecting a slow, taunting funereal line. The drums pick up, a stuttering beat reminiscent of Ital Tek. The regal nature of the track is punctuated with fireworks before the song’s lead line takes us home. The whole affair is threatening yet compelling, a tough combination to get right, but throughout Memories, man, do they.
The next track is “Dendera Light,” where a mangled, demonic synth blares at us from the outset, rattling our woofers. A ghostly, trebly sound defeats the synth, splintering the beat into a shambles.
Listen to how single “SZ31X71” comes out of the darkness with its growling bass, booming kick, staccato snares and strangled lead line. Intimidating stuff, and it comes as no surprise that “The Telepath,” the first of two vocal-led tracks, is just as unsettling. Singer Julia Kotowski’s vocals recall Lulu Rouge, who utilize different vocalists within their dark melodies to great effect. The lyrics here are almost unintelligible, functioning as additional layering for the melancholic menace.
An eerie, sped-up witch house intro comes in before Kotowski soothes us with her opening lines. She’s swallowed by the witchy section, where her singing grows to a scream. This section dies out and the singer mumbles underneath bells sampled from our nightmares. The song uses distortion well, punctuating key moments in the vocals as opposed to taking the easy way out by drowning the whole thing through a guitar stomp pedal. It’s stylish and aloof, the product of the creators’ deliciously deranged sensibilities.
The sonic ideas executed in Memories contain a deliberate finesse in how one sound skitters around the others. In electronic music in particular, many artists rely on stretching a single idea out over the course of five or eight minutes. Hands has developed each track to resist listener boredom. Many build to a crescendo where everything is unleashed, as in eight-minute album closer “Hoh Xil” or the aforementioned “SZ31X71.”
Hands’ approach runs contrary to many electronic releases, where a bank of programmed patterns takes us through the logical progression of taking away elements only to reintroduce them eight bars later. Maybe a high hat comes in after the next eight bars. Take the kick away. Let the synth play. Bring the kick back in. This traditional approach is frustrating, formulaic, and most of all, boring. Hands refutes this basic tenet through a deliberate orchestration of the track’s elements, of which the Big Bang opener element is only the earliest example of many gems to be uncovered by the listener.
Listen to Koronis‘ recent The Replicant as another illustration of a pleasurable electronic music experience. The six-song EP ducks and weaves around a wide range of styles, from aggressive drum n’ bass and dubstep to symphonic orchestration and traditional ambient. It provides a compelling listen, the result of a producer with many stylistic predilections.
Then consider Vogel’s latest, the three-track Gaia, as a counterpoint. Quite different from his 80s-influenced electronic debut Hologram, Gaia‘s tracks are dark, minimal techno excursions, but are nevertheless repetitive six-minute extensions of a singular idea.
These Hidden Hands heads in Koronis’ direction to bring the listener a wide range of influences and style. “Angkor” and Ale Hop-driven “Lima 3AM” are exemplars. “Angkor” in particular calls out to the melody of “Glasir” and builds with its driving, epic beat, whereas “Grelles Licht,” a subterranean hum surrounded by wisps of vocal fragments, contains no percussion at all.
It’s significant that four of the tracks are named after places: “Angkor,” “Socotra,” “Lima 3AM,” and “Hoh Xil.” Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Socotra, with its bizarre trees, is touted on Atlas Obscura as being the most alien-looking place on Earth. Lima is the capital of one of South America’s largest countries, though “3AM” is redundant – it’s impossible to conceive playing this album in the blaring light of day. Hoh Xil is China’s least populated place, and the world’s third least.
These aren’t just facts for you trivia buffs, but point to the world’s utter beauty that many times lies at its fringe, the core of the album’s message. As “Hoh Xil” decays over several minutes, the last moments of the album, we realize the world may end very differently than how it started: not with a bang, but with the gradual snuffing out of its light, the last of life a slow, struggling suffocation.
But for now, there is hope. Bill Bryson calls our attention to viewing the universe inside a television image, and These Hidden Hands suggest we may also be able to hear it. As Deepak Chopra reminds us, “If the fate of the universe was decided in a single moment at the instant of the Big Bang, that was the most creative moment of all.”
Take a listen with these track excerpts:
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Tristan Kneschke enjoys traveling to places his mother warns him about. Visit www.tristanwrites.com.