Monday, January 28, 2008

Aluk Todolo - Descension

The title of instrumental Occult Rock cabal Aluk Todolo's debut album 'Descension' is the title of John Coltrane's watershed album "Ascension" turned upside down ... like a Satanic cross.

Aluk Todolo hails from France and is comprised of members of two Black Metal bands: Diamatregon (who put out their debut album, "Blasphemy For Satan" on tUMULt) and Vediog Svaor. Said to be recorded in a cave in the Alps, "Descension" was produced by none other than James Plotkin (Old, Phantomsmasher, Khanate, Khlyst).

Most reviewers of 'Descension' focus on that album's Krautrock inspiration, referencing Can, Faust, Harmonia. Other writers point to Post Punk influences: This Heat, even Einstürzende Neubauten - and all these writers are entirely justified in doing so. I need not repeat these readings of 'Descension' here. Certainly, references to these Post Punk and Krautrock band are more appropriate than references to Coltrane's monumental "Ascension", as there is no overt Jazz influence audible in Descension's blackend sound world. And - though Aluk Todolo's album is astonishing - it would be foolish to compare them to Coltrane on a strictly artistic level.

But what about the significance of the album's title - 'Descension'? There are signifyers one cannot use without calling forth ghosts ... like using the word "summer" in an album title risks evoking the restless spirits of the Beach Boys. Referencing "Ascension" in the context of Aluk Todolo's music is a little like a Black Metal band naming it's album "A Hate Supreme". Is the music of Aluk Todolo's debut an inversion of John Coltrane's?

The lettering of the band's name on the album's cover art certainly points towards an inversion: all are upside down. So let us see whether a web of significance can be spun between "Ascension" and "Descension" by analyzing the one as an inversion of the other.

Where Coltrane's "Ascension" was produced by a big band (10 musicians!) and seems to ascribe to a "more is more" aesthetic, "Descension" is the creation of a power trio (bass, drums, guitar) and staunchly minimalist.

Coltrane's "Ascension" is improvised, expansive and free: the saxophonist " and fragmented the orthodox syntactical elements of jazz, viz. tempo, rhythm and pulse, harmonic progressions and set "changes", keys and tonal centres..." (sourced here). Where "Ascension" is improvised, expansive and free, "Descension" is the opposite: it is composed, tight and controlled. The drums rhythms are so simple and lo-fi as to be almost almost skeletal, a far cry from Rashied Ali's multidirectional, near-chaotic drumming; the bass is a monomanically pulsating mantra; and even the guitar noise - though very psychedelic, sometimes rumbling, sometimes roaring, at times grating and abrasive - seems almost to be electronically programmed.

A cross is still a cross, even if it is turned upside down. Both Aluk Todolo and Coltrane's music are oriented towards an ecstatic mysticism.

The band's name points towards the Eastern philosophy John Coltrane was so very much interested in: Aluk Todolo is the name of the religious tradition of the Toraja people, polytheistic animists who live in the mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. But where Coltrane was open to all the world's cultures because he was an inclusionary humanist, Aluk Todolo uses the intercultural reference to send an anti-enlightenment message. And where Coltrane, in Freudian terms, was animated by the 'pleasure principle', Aluk Todolo is propelled by a 'death drive': the Toraja people is famous for their elaborate funeral rites and their burial sites carved into rocky cliffs.

Coltrane was very much interested in the Yoruba religion, in which Afro-American divinities enter the body of the priests consecrated to that spiritual being. Furthermore, Ascension's playing style is a sort of glossolalia - speaking in tongues, ecstatically possessed by the Holy Ghost. Likewise, in a Terrorizer interview Aluk Todolo's spokesman said that the album "...was recorded during summer 2006 in the Alps, in a cave. There, what lurks between the folds of the audible can become real. We started recording at dusk, exhausted after several hours of invocation. When we finally disappeared behind the forces we summoned, we reached the conditions to record 'Descension'." Disappearing behind spiritual beings doubtlessly refers to possession. Both Coltrane's band at the time "Ascension" was recorded, and Aluk Todolo can be described as trance possession cults. But where Coltrane strove to incarnate a God who is "A Love Supreme", Aluk Todolo channels malicious, hateful spirits.

Where the spiritual nature of "Ascension" is essentially optimist, presenting an ecstatic yearning for a better world, for the Kingdom Come, "Descension" points downwards, towards an acephalic and ruined society, towards an abyss abandoned by God. Descension's beautiful album cover art is an apt symbol of that: it is a black and white photograph of a headless, broken and weathered statue of the Buddha or an Eastern deity set against an old brick wall.

Aluk Todolo's "Descension" is a withering lotus flower, it's leaves falling in mesmerizing stop-motion.

Post scriptum

Aluk Todolo's 'Descension' is not the first album to invert Coltrane's "Ascension": Stefan Jaworzyn's eponymous noise rock band is (more explicit) example. Yet another might be "Descension" by Yellow Swans (an album I haven't heard).

Here is an Italian-language interview with Antoine Hadjioannou, the band's drummer (link).

I can see where the references to This Heat comes from - but, given their band name, I'd like to see them explore ethnopsychedelic montage, to write an 'Urban Gamelan' or a 'The Gospel Comes To New Guinea' (23 Skidoo) for the 21st century.


Jonathyn said...

"Where the spiritual nature of "Ascension" is essentially optimist, presenting an ecstatic yearning for a better world, for the Kingdom Come, "Descension" points downwards, towards an acephalic and ruined society, towards an abyss abandoned by God."

I think an acephalic and ruined society, an abyss where God has been abandoned is more appropriate for the world that Aluk Todolo are trying to convey within the sounds and noises of Descension. It's a reflection I believe, not a signpost, a portrayal of the modern world. The crumbling Buddha representing the dismissal of morals, the divine, etc.

valter said...

Thanks for the comment, Jonathyn!

I do not think our readings (listenings?) of Aluk Todolo are mutually exclusive.

Both my 'signpost' and your 'reflection' can both be understood as 'reference'. And I certainly did not intend to place the 'acephalic and ruined society' in the future ... it is not the next world (though it may be the end of time..).

Anonymous said...

Hey valter. It's Jonathyn. Remember me? I'm on blogger now, check out my blog if you like. :)