Wrekmeister Harmonies – You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me
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Twenty years ago, if you would have told a longhair at a Morbid Angel show that metal performances would someday sit comfortably alongside museum pieces, he'd have smashed a Schlitz bottle over your head. And, OK, fair enough, the kind of metal being propagated at a Morbid Angel show would likely still have trouble crossing over to the donors who keep America's art museums humming. But in the past several years, forward-thinking heavy acts like Liturgy and Om have made it acceptable for metal bands to bring their low culture expression to institutions of high culture. Chicago's J.R. Robinson, recording as Wrekmeister Harmonies, takes this development even farther. His visual and sound installations are native to the museum world, and they've now been committed to wax on his Thrill Jockey debut, You've Always Meant So Much To Me.
Over 38 dynamic minutes, Robinson enlists friends and Chicago metal luminaries like Sanford Parker, Bruce Lamont, and Jef Whitehead to help him build a towering monument to sound, burn it down, and mourn its destruction. Rickety saxophone loops and natural percussion give way to atonal synthesizer menace and, eventually, a series of massive doom riffs backed with string melodies, before a lonely piano eventually takes over and returns the composition to the void from whence it crawled. At least, those are the SparkNotes to the album, but they hardly do it justice.
What Robinson is really doing here is far subtler. Every note and every rest has been meticulously chosen to best serve the construction of the piece, and when it erupts, it's not merely as a third-generation Explosions in the Sky knockoff. If anything, it's an anti-crescendo, a way for the sonic ugliness to get even uglier before we're allowed to hear something pretty. Beneath all that darkness is beauty, and that too reveals itself more and more on subsequent listens. I've listened to the record eight times in writing this review and can't say I've heard even the tiniest fraction of what Robinson has intended. Like so many album-length songs by heavy acts – looking at you, Dopesmoker – part of the charm is in never being satisfied with what you've just heard. Each listen unveils something new, and that something is different for each listener. (A hackier writer than I would compare that slow burn to the mysteries and revelations of this project's namesake, Belá Tarr's masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies, but not me. No, ma'am.)
If there's anything disappointing about You've Always Meant So Much To Me, it's that it was so clearly conceived with visuals in mind but offers no such accompaniment in its present form. Spinning the vinyl in one's living room or playing the MP3s on a smartphone can never conjure up quite the same experience that the lucky people who were able to attend one of Robinson's legendary museum performances witnessed. As far as consolation prizes go, this is a damn good one.
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