Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Tarentel - The Order of Things

The Order of Things

Released 2001 on Neurot Recordings
Reviewed by aether, 11/09/2012ce

Tarentel – The Order of Things (2001)

People often ask me about ‘great’ (really, great, that is!) post-rock LP’s, and after murmuring about the pioneering prototypical moves of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden (1988), I always make sure their attention is then directed towards two wantonly obscure and, until recently, relatively ‘unsung’ releases: Bark Psychosis’ glacial, wintry Hex (1994) and Tarentel’s yearningly cosmic The Order of Things (2001), of which I'd been meaning to do an Unsung review for years now.

Before Post-Rock became a self-parody of itself in the mid-2000’s the scene was delineated stylistically by a number of interesting and somewhat aesthetically divergent bands, Most of these bands, such as Bark Psychosis, Mogwai, Disco Inferno and Labradford, would burn briefly, but brightly. But, more importantly, they would throw down a somewhat intimidating gauntlet for the second wave of groups in the shape of Post-Rock’s foundational premise (defined by Simon Reynolds amongst others as follows): a music wrought from ‘instruments’ freed from their restrictive, inherently ‘Rockist’ applications. In other words, instruments freed from being ‘instruments’ at all, or at least distanced from their ostensible, ‘nominal’ application.

Drawing on all this, as well as developing the ideas of pioneering 70s experimental rock artists (Eno, Bowie, the American Minimalists and much Krautrock), bands such as Tortoise, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Boards of Canada began to foreground instrumental timbre, post-production aural texturing and spatial dynamics. This led to a compositional approach that would bring subtle but insightful new twists on the basic post-rock thesis.

Perhaps none more so than the largely unsung San Franciscan band, Tarentel, did with their 2001 masterpiece, The Order of Things, an LP that progresses from standard (if impressive) Post-Rock moves to totally transcendental aural manoeuvres across the gaping cosmic yaw of space.

The Order of Things backs off a little on the guitar-focussed From Bone to Satellite (from 1999), by adding pastel pale keyboards, whispering electronics, abstracted orchestral clouds, acoustic laments and spectral glitch sound effects. Ranging from elegiac post-rock vignettes to gigantic oceanic swells of droning ambient sound, ghostly folk-tronica cover versions of Ricke Lee Jones tracks, to outright electronic experimental ambience and abandon, this LP always surprises, offering a listening experience seemingly enriched with every play.

The Bark Psychosis influence is to the fore before we’ve even heard a note: as the sleeve (consciously, I think) mimics that band’s 1989 Cheree Records release “All Different Things” with a 4AD-ish cover photograph of autumnal leaves caught both in textural close up and abstracted long shot.

This specific influence is retained as the opening chords of “Adonai” waft into being – a classic Graham Sutton-type mournfully descending bell-toned guitar figure repeated over and over, the band slowly flavouring it with mournful brass, subtle keyboard drones and a detailing of electronic hiss and hum. It’s in the middle of this 10-minute piece, that the music seems to cross over some metaphorical and metaphysical ‘bridge’ to the land of the spirits (as when the journeyman crosses the bridge in Murnau’s Nosferatu), as everything starts to become ethereal and dissolute, sound wise. A gaseous Mellotron-like keyboard starts to hiss like the breath of a wraith, wafting dread, poisonous clouds across the track, as if this noise is escaping from the very seams and cracks of a track under the threat of some immense air-pressure – it positively seeps with tension, and the bell-tone guitar can only respond with some funereal march-like ringing figure of doom.

As the track slowly dissolves before our ears, the voices of the dead and radio-static call to us from amongst the billowing white noise clouds of sound, computer glitch sounds are Morse code tapped out by fading spectres as some forlorn last resort. Sounds hyperbolic and overly descriptive I know, but it’s the only way I can even begin to describe such sounds. And as if life itself is leaving the track, everything slows down, time warp slow, the music now only describable as billowing waves of noise, its impossible to tell what instrument is making what sound (remember, that post-rock premise!). It is 10 minutes of febrile, sweaty, cloying, sound that seems permeated, no, filled, with some sort of chill tension and fear - to which the LP will soon be willingly, wilfully and totally abandoned.

Track Two, “Popol Vuh” (no hiding influences here) starts amidst some sort of brightening of the musical atmosphere, if only momentarily, as Haydn-like strings climb ever skyward, only to be gently brought down to earth again by cloying acoustic angels, to fall into a cooling pool of rock instrumentation, momentarily in their normal application. Propulsive guitar chords and rolling bass sift us forward, like the wafting of a regular wind – it’s the last time the music will have anything resembling solid materialist foundations, as rippling guitars and yearning strings sail us out into the great beyond.

The track ends and “Ghostyhead” begins – having sailed so far out, it can only now signal back wanly from that great beyond with some distant beacon of sound made from shrill keyboards and wordless female voice. Ahead…stands the infinite. A giant swell of sub-bass picks us up, and lurches us onto some Lovecraft-ian New England shoreline, where a crystal-voiced maiden awaits to serenade us with the gothic death ballad of “Ghostyhead.” Faust-ian school house piano picks out some maudlin chords, amidst a clamorous hum of electronic fuzz, as the delicate voice of band member Windy Allen sings Rickie Lee’s spectral tale:

Ghostyhead, Ghostyhead, Standing in the Door
You think if you don't answer
I can't hear you anymore
Chains you hung from ear to ear
Finally drug your head
But I can see through anything
I know what you bled

This stranded singer again can only look out to sea – the watery metaphor of oceanic cosmic sea swells – is really the best analogy I can make here to the diaphanous, abstracted swathes of sound that call out to our stranded soloist. Distant guitar cries and electronic sighs flit about this haunted shoreline of sound. This LP must have surely been one of the blueprints for the emerging Hauntology field, as the credits are full of illusions to field recordings etc. and the atmosphere is so creepy. As if the field recordings themselves were the beginning point for the subsequent sculpting of these sound-scapes. It certainly feels this way as the LP continues, from here on in it lifts off from the solid, if spectral, beachhead of “Ghostyhead” to the yawing chasm of space itself.

“Death in the Mind of the Living Pneuma” begins the long abstract journey upwards and outwards, a droning half-Tambura/half-bagpipe keyboard drone and ominous wafts of impressionistic machine-like noises. The sound morphs and melds together, strange barely-heard demonic whispers and half-chants, a throbbing, eternal, La Monte Young-ian prayer for (and by) the lap-top generation. Yet the sound seems equally suffused with something ancient and very alien at the same time as the wheezing harmoniums ooze their cosmic mantras. I’m reminded of the textural experiments with ‘computerised music’ that Iannis Xenakis made in the early 70s. Suddenly a huge filter sucks the music up onto a higher plateaux of sound and yearning strings again appears like wan clouds in the blackness. Again, mention of 'similar' acts would fail miserably to register the individual nature of this music, but the gaping Kosmiche of the more abstract parts of A.R. & Machines mighty Echo (1972) – especially where the strings appear from time to time out of the formless aural fug – and the visionary Ligeti-accompanied moments of Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey get close. 14 minutes later, we think we’re ready for the drift down to earth but we’re only just about to start the journey to meet our maker (metaphorically speaking).

There’s a moment at the end of David Lindsay Gnostic-visionary 1920 sci-fantasy novel A Voyage To Arcturus when the ‘hero’ Maskull (after countless journeys and mystical meetings with strange and foreboding characters) stands looking at the “Muspel Light” - he floats in the centre of the cosmos as a billion particles of light dance all around him, and he comes to recognise CREATION and THE SELF itself.

If anything could soundtrack this moment of intense transcendental self-awareness (music was a major influence of Lindsay's work) then it’s the final track of this LP: “Blessed/Cursed.” It begins with huge regular beats of sound – they sound earth shattering, but such is the echo around them they also sound a thousand miles away too. {Indeed they rather sound like the regular beats that Lindsay’s hero hears throughout his journey (interpreted by many as the beating of his own heart)}. Its a huge slow beat, like the turning of the Earth, with glistening trumpets sounding off the Earth's curve, as glissando guitars and finally (what sound like) Mellotron choirs gently spin around and around – it’s a jaw-dropping, beautiful, truly heavenly sound. Music like this is rare and should be revered. The trumpets climb around this slow moving planet sized sound as synthesisers fizzle and spin pools of sound around the firmament. Unbelievable! And, there’s one surprise left – yes, finally, FINALLY, the gentle drift down to earth. Tarentel borrow the beautiful melody from Popol Vuh’s 17-minute hypnotic trance mantra, “Brudder Des Schattens, Sohne Des Lichts” (fans will immediately recognise it, even if it begins to slowly develop). Caressing xylophones and the warm embrace of softly picked electric guitars plant our feet gently on the ground again, but it’s a ground of an Earth that will never sound or seem the same again.

God knows how Tarentel felt when they finished this – it is IMHO a modern masterpiece, criminally under acknowledged on the Internet and often glibly recommended as a “good “Math Rock” album.” Forget fucking Math Rock. This LP reaches for the infinite. They never reached these lofty, mesmerising heights again, of course, and probably wouldn’t want too even if they could.

I’m reminded of the little metaphorical fable of enlightenment that opens the film El Topo: “The Mole digs tunnels under the Earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.” Tarentel's sonic worm-hole of a tunnel (like all great art) allows us a glimpse of the Infinite – but anything more than a glimpse would blind us to the nature of our true reality here amongst the spheres. Here…amongst the Order of Things!

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