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Experimental Atmospherics: Black to Comm’s “Seven Horses for Seven Kings”

black to comm

With an eye for perfection in imperfection, Hamburg’s Black to Comm (inspired by the spirit of the MC5 track) has graced the world with an artform that cannot be summed up in a single word. A musical astronaut, the man behind it all, Marc Richter, has become highly sought-after to take audiences into higher planes. His body of atmospheric work is covered in a darkness offset by the rhythmic twinkle of faint lights, as if stars were on-switches. The intriguing paradox that is Black to Comm’s futuristic take on the land that time forgot has yielded countless albums adorned with surreal visuals: for instance, the project’s 2014 self-titled release managed to illicit a post-rock sound through non-traditional means, ultimately speaking to Richter’s role as a benevolent Dr. Frankenstein.

Now, Black to Comm has returned with its latest creation: a sinister take on the outer limits of the avant-garde in the form of Seven Horses for Seven Kings. We’re streaming it below prior to its Friday release.

With a name like Seven Horses for Seven Kings, this album instantly gives off the impression of a towering tale. Despite its non-melodic overtones, it is a work from which we can derive a vivid narrative. On the flip side of lucky seven, the track listings total to an ominous 13, documenting the stages of extreme distress and peace, as well as much of the grey that rests in between. Together, we are presented with a soundtrack to a dreamscape where a semi-conscious brain is the director. The pulsing, trumpet-like screeches of opening track “Asphodel Mansions” immediately grips you by the collar as the words “Seven Horses for Seven Kings” emerges in gothic font.

After a quick fade to a blank screen, tensions build slowly but surely as different samples are interjected. Orchestral-like gravity anchors a variety of beeps until all operations go haywire, invoking a taste of what can be more closely identified as “noise” as we have come to know it. The glimmers of hacksaw-induced torture in “Lethe” push morale to an all-time low, felt in the pit of the stomach, while the somber malaise of “The Deseret Alphabet” serves as a manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome. The underlying sense of dread lifts with “Angel Investor,” like a captive heroine finally breaking free into the daylight. You can practically watch the credits roll on grand finale “The Courtesan Jigokudayū Sees Herself as a Skeleton in the Mirror of Hell,” but one last bout of haunting unease suggests that we have been set up for a sequel.

While this thriller is exhaustive, there is one final question that can be mustered: who managed to harvest sounds not found in nature? While the surface can only be scratched on the mind of Black to Comm, we asked for Richter’s hand and allowed him to guide us.

Photo credit: Pelle Buys
Photo credit: Pelle Buys

Obviously, you’re quite the master of experimentation. How did you pick up the technical skills needed to achieve Black to Comm’s signature sound?

I would say technical skills are only a small part of what I do and it sounds simple but skills just come to you if you’re doing your thing for a long period of time with fervor and perseverance. Of greater importance for any kind of music making is the act of listening. Before I started making music myself I was (and still am) an active listener, spending hours a day just listening to records. [In] the way I make music the most important aspect in the mixing process is peeling away any unnecessary layers, so it’s crucial to know what you’re trying to achieve and even more crucial to have a sense of what you don’t want to hear in your music. You have to be unduly opinionated.

The vinyl artwork for Seven Horses for Seven Kings is striking, haunting, but also quite beautiful. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the visual aspects of the album?

The artwork was done by my friend Andreas Diefenbach, who’s a visual artist. Most of his techniques are quite similar to the way I make music; collage, overpainting, sampling, stealing, mutating pre-existing material. This one is an overpainting of a photo of a popular TV personality (I’m not going to say who it is). It goes well along the themes of the album; feudalism, kleptocracy, our new aristocracy. I usually try to work with more subtle imagery but the whole album is a bit more immediate than previous works so it suited that notion.

What do you think is the ideal context in which to enjoy this record?

In the bathtub? No, seriously, I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t make sense to listen to it as background music so I’m always slightly incensed when people come up with the Ambient Music denomination. It’s definitely a more bodily sound compared to older records so it should be played loud and through speakers, large speakers if available. Enjoying might not be the right word though.

If you are inclined to share, what is the significance of the number seven to you?

I’m not sure it has a significance to me personally (though I do tend to associate some sort of serendipity to it) but I realized it generally seems to be a number people favor over other numbers or mystify for some reason. So I’m more interested in the fact that the number has a significance rather than it having one for myself. There are several mystical concepts involving the number seven; seven virtues, seven deadly sins, seven sleepers, the seventh son of a seventh son (an Iron Maiden album as well). In Islam seven is the number of heavens and the number of hells.

Photo credit: Pelle Buys
Photo credit: Pelle Buys

What goal did you have in mind when it came to launching your label, Dekorder? What has the experience been like overall?

It was to be an open heterogeneous space; one that I only intervene in rarely (something labels usually do) to give musicians I love and respect a platform where they can present their very own vision and not censor them. It’s a big word but all labels want to create some sort of sonic Gesamtkunstwerk and I’m no different. It’s been a great experience and I met most of my friends through the label but in the last few years even though it was finally making a small profit it became a bit of a burden so I stopped. In recent years it has become very difficult to promote a real underground culture. Social media seems to have standardized people’s opinions and suddenly everything seems either black or white while I’m personally more interested in the grey areas.

Are you keen on playing shows? If so, what work goes into translating Black to Comm into a live performance?

I used to not enjoy playing live but kind of got into it in the last few years. There’s an immediacy and physicality you can only accomplish with a decent sound system and the right group of people. It’s difficult to translate what is mainly a studio project into a live setting but I think I found some ways to do it without compromising too much. I don’t really enjoy being front and center, but neither [do I] want to incorporate visuals, so I try to let the sonics take center stage.

Where do you see yourself fitting into the legacy of industrial music in Germany, if at all?

Obviously I have an interest in the origins of the genre with groups such as Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound, and Coil. Regarding German groups I would say Faust (from Hamburg!) are the ultimate proto-Industrial band using a concrete mixer and TV sets on stage in the 1970s and working with the studio as an instrument, and groups like Cluster introducing pure electronic sounds to a music scene used to guitars and drums.

Hamburg had a strong scene in the early 1980s with Alfred Hilsberg’s Zick Zack label which released early albums by Neubauten, Die Tödliche Doris, Palais Schaumburg et al. There were people like Asmus Tietchens and Uli Rehberg (who are still around) releasing music by SPK, Throbbing Gristle, Laibach and still running a great record shop (Unterm Durchschnitt) that I visited regularly when I moved to the city — it’s definitely a tradition I can identify with.

Also, the late 1970s/early 1980s works by Roland Kayn should not be forgotten (even though he moved to the Netherlands at some point). Coming from a whole different (academic) background, he was still taking a similar path. Massive walls of noise…

Seven Horses for Seven Kings drops on Friday via Thrill Jockey.

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