Revamp, renew (5 of 6)
M.J. Harris is just one of the monikers of the prolific Mick Harris. As the original drummer for grindcore godfathers Napalm Death, the musical direction he has pursued since leaving that seminal band may come to some as a surprise. While Napalm Death pummeled its listeners with lightning speed and aggression, much of Harris’s current output takes a completely opposite approach. ND’s sub-one-minute noise blurs have evolved into floating soundscapes that more often than not stretch past the ten-minute mark.
One of Mick’s first post-Napalm Death project was Scorn. This project's first album, Vae Solis, was released in 1992 and featured fellow ND alumnae, Justin Broadrick, frontman and co-founder of the colossal musical juggernaut, Godflesh. While Vae Solis played very much in the grindcore vein, fleeting glimpses of Harris’ future musical vision appeared in tunes like "On Ice" and "Heavy Blood". Both these songs would be later featured on the excellent Lick Forever Dog EP, the remixes featured on this 4-track disc tipping their hat even more in the beat-ambient-isolationist direction.
1993’s Journey Through Underworlds marked the first release by another of Mick’s projects, Lull. Focusing on darker, more isolationist ambience, Lull abandoned percussion almost completely, preferring rumbling, distant bass and slowly evolving, floating textures. Future releases, such as 1996’s Continue (featuring a single, 62-minute track), would push this idea even further. Mick continued to champion this style of production when he teamed with Martyn Bates, formerly of the 80s pop duo Eyeless in Gaza, to create Murder Ballads.
Originally released between 1994 and 1998 as 3 separate albums (Drift, Passages, and Incest Songs), this three-disc set is an almost definitive example of dark ambience. Each of these chilling, beatless texture pieces centers around Bates’ almost feminine vocals. As the title of the compilation suggests, the songs are inspired by (and seemingly modeled after) traditional English folk murder ballads. There are tales of the soon-to-be-married woman murdered by her fiancé ("The Death Of Polly"), the mother killing her two babies with a penknife ("The Cruel Mother"), the woman accusing her lover of the murder of her brother ("Edward"), and more gory tales in this vein. The subject matter is somewhat of a return to form for Bates, who grew up in England during the folk boom of the 1960s.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this collection is how Bates’ vocals interact with and compliment Harris’ sinister drones and clatters. While it’s easy to concentrate on the lyrics and Bates’ calculated delivery, there are many hypnotic instrumental breaks that allow Harris to display his talents for soundcraft. The placement of the vocals in the overall mix is key. They stand at the front and are, with the exception of occasional reverb, almost completely untreated, immediately grabbing the listener’s attention while moody synths and rumbles swirl about, yet remaining firmly anchored to, the vocal.
In all, this is a stellar example of dark music. The unsettling topics, presented in Bates’ almost crooning style, coupled with Harris bleak, nightmarish sonics, make for a starkly beautiful listen. Fall asleep to this and bad dreams will ensue.