10 Pieces That Shaped Ehnahre’s “The Marrow”
For nearly 10 years, Ehnahre have turned conventional wisdom into chopped liver. Part hideous death metal band, part avant-garde new music collective, this Boston-based act forces listeners to abandon their sense of normalcy and embrace the terror of the unknown. As Associate Editor Jon Rosenthal mentioned earlier this week, Ehnahre are a demanding listen, even for those who spend their time deliberately searching for demanding listens.
Extreme metal fans unfamiliar with modern art music will get completely thrown by the band’s opaque approach to structure, and eggheads with composition degrees likely aren’t up for how inhospitably heavy Ehnahre are. To help you prepare for The Marrow, their newest album set to be released tomorrow via Painted Throat, we asked Ehnahre’s Ryan McGuire for a breakdown of some of the pieces that helped inspire their latest exploration into the furthest reaches of extremity.
I was first introduced to this piece by Ehnahre’s pianist, Jared Redmond. He put it on at a drunken listening session late one night when we were working on Douve, and I’ve been returning to this piece ever since. Dillon is a self-taught composer, and that uniquely informs his approach to modern “classical” music. Harsh string figures and clanging piano are staggered, twisted and mutated, rising and falling, taking quick detours to other musical subjects, while retaining the distinct sonic palette during what seems like a bizarre, visceral dance.
Glotman is a Berlin-based musician who, as far as I can tell, is a classically trained double bassist, but applies most of his artistic energies to electronic-based music. With Études, he returned to the bass, to create a record that digs deep into the details of the instrument. It is a collection of pieces, each of which contains only one musical idea, but the recording brings a hidden world of sound to life, utilizing elements that are often overlooked, or more often, edited out – bow hair streaking across the string, creaking wood, groaning, loose detuned strings clattering against the fingerboard. This record is not only intensely dark and beautiful, but also an amazing document of incredible technique in sound engineering.
“The Breathing Clarity”. This piece was written for small choir, bass flute and electronics, and represents someone observing two worlds – the past (the choir) and the future (the flute). The two elements are kept completely separate, in staggered sections, as the choir sings more subdued tonal phrases reminiscent of Nono’s musical childhood, while the flute buzzes, hums and flutters, aided by heavy reverb and electronic manipulations, like some sort of prophetic fever dream. Ultimately this all somehow coalesces into a feeling of meditative timelessness. Listen with the lights off, and ponder the words Nono found on a monastery wall in Spain, which were the inspiration for much of his later music, “caminantes no hay caminos hay que caminar," (very roughly translated as, to my understanding, “Traveller, there is no where to travel, only travelling.”)
Day to day, I don’t typically listen to a lot of jazz. But when Coleman died in 2015, I found myself revisiting – or rediscovering, I should say – the album Science Fiction. The first track, “What Reason Could I Give?” features singer Asha Puthli, and the juxtaposition between the roiling, tumbling rhythm section, and the smooth, elongated lines of the woodwinds and voice is simply incredible. They make wonderfully unexpected companions. It is a truly masterful unification of completely disparate elements.
Speaking of disparate elements – what the hell is this? I cannot express how deeply envious I am of this group’s ability to merge seemingly incompatible styles and timbres, into one larger cohesive, and completely singular sound.
I cannot think of a better example of sophisticated and idiomatic instrumental writing, by someone who doesn’t play the instrument in question. The first time I heard this piece performed, I thought, “There’s no way. There is no fucking way this is happening. How is she doing that? Who’s sampling her? Where’s the second violinist?” But, to my amazement, it was just one woman flawlessly executing an unbelievably well written piece that sounded impossible to execute. Sciarrino actually had to invent new techniques for this piece, in order to generate the sounds he had in his head, and it’s truly amazing what he came up with (although I guess this puts the idiomatic element into question, but the fact that it is playable at all proves my assertion. I think.) Aside from being staggeringly well composed, it’s pretty goddamned gorgeous, too.
When speaking of music like this, I often hear people say things like “it doesn’t go anywhere.” Bullshit. Not that that is of any real importance (see Nono), but what makes this record so amazing is how far away it can take you from where you started, without you even realizing it. It pulls you into the drone, and at several points throughout the piece you might be startled out of your mesmeric state to ask – how the fuck did we get here? Where are we? What happened?
This record (recorded in 1993) features improv heavyweights Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, Joey Baron, and Phil Minton. It starts out with something of a metal “feel,” due to the aggressive solo drumming. The bass and voice enter, and after a short time, Ostertag begins to live sample and manipulate the sounds of the instrumentalists, somehow simultaneously creating thematic elements, while further disorienting the listener. On the second track, “Tongue Tied,” there is an achingly sublime beginning, with Dresser’s bass harmonics, percussion like falling rain, and wispy, creaking vocals. Of course, Ostertag soon gets a hold of it, and suddenly there are sharp left turns. But 15 minutes in, our long-forgotten and incredibly beautiful opening theme is resurrected, bookending the track. The arc of both pieces is so natural for an extended, form-free improvisation, it’s almost unbelievable. Good grief, this shit really butters my bread. Minton has a few goofy vocal snags (well, maybe more than a few), but they’re easy to overlook in the context of the whole record.
Certainly not the most out-there item on this list, but no less essential to the creation of The Marrow. To all the numb nuts that I’ve heard refer to the guitar tone as “forgettable” or “bland”, I have one thing to say – pull the fucking cotton out of your ears. The guitar tone here is king – all those raging mids in a scooped-out death metal world will peel the skin right off of your face. The songwriting, which may be a bit straightforward compositionally, is flawless, and the ordering of songs creates a unified narrative across the album. This might be the most important and influential death metal album of all time, in my humble opinion.
I have no words. Just listen.