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Vessel - Queen of Golden Dogs Music Album Reviews

Leaving behind the beats of his previous work, the Bristol producer takes up chamber instruments, choral arrangements, and digital mayhem on a dizzying album about the nature of the self.

Vessel is not the kind of artist who progresses in straight lines. “I have to move about very quickly, or I become too familiar,” he’s said of his methods. Six years on from his debut album, Sebastian Gainsborough’s music is virtually unrecognizable from its former self. Since emerging from the aftershocks of dubstep, he’s been busily deprogramming himself from the familiar codes of club music, and on Queen of Golden Dogs, he slashes the ropes and soars into the stratosphere, pulling off an extraordinary fusion of chamber music, choral quintets, poetry, surrealism, mysticism, and, not least, rubble-making electronic epics.

After the sinister, dub-informed atmospheres of 2012’s Order of Noise, an album that aligned the Bristol producer with the low-end frequencies of his Young Echo crew, Gainsborough drew a chalk line around his own little corner of not-so-danceable sound-system music. On 2014’s Punish, Honey, he assembled his own orchestra out of shonky homemade instruments, got inspired by bawdy Middle English literature, and came up with an album of shunting, grunting tracks with titles like “Red Sex.” Four years later, he’s on a different plane entirely.

Queen of Golden Dogs, as far as I can scry, is about embracing mystery and ambivalence and junking the whole illusion of “self.” It’s about the uncomfortable realization that your mind is a cluttered cabinet of secret compartments; a contradictory mess of thoughts and feelings that cannot be squashed down into an “I” or “me.” It’s an album of lofty ideas, for sure. It also, thank god, absolutely bangs—harder than anything Gainsborough has touched before, and on a level rarely attempted, let alone reached, by the kind of artist who’s also busy with composing string quartets and adapting Portuguese poems into choral spectaculars.

This time, he’s brought in a fleet of classical instruments to tangle with his already tactile electronics. The album lurches between pensive passages of strings and harpsichords, sometimes recalling These New Puritans’ skeletal experiments on Field of Reeds, and sky-scraping walls of electronic mayhem occupying the same universe as James Holden circa The Inheritors. The juxtaposition of electronic and acoustic, postmodern and baroque, obviously brings to mind Oneohtrix Point Never; moments from “Zahir (For Eleanor)” could slot straight into Age Of.

The album opens with a flourish of strings, as if we’ve walked in on a rehearsal; the ensemble loses momentum, subsumed by a writhing mass of drums and sawn-off machine-melodies. That interrupted dynamic is a trailer for the action to come, which segues from ecclesiastical splendor on “Good Animal (For Hannah)”—with the ghostly trails of a soprano voice introducing us to Olivia Chaney, who sings on most of the remaining tracks—to the chaos and crunch of “Argo (For Maggie),” where strings swoop in like sparrowhawks with their talons outstretched, echoing Bernard Parmegiani in terrorist mode. The softness of “Zahir (For Eleanor)” gives way to the pilled-up bonanza of “Glory Glory (For Tippi),” a gurgling neo-trance wind-up that shoves Lorenzo Senni into an industrial shredder with slap bass, half a scrapyard, and what might be the delicate tap of fork against wine glass. The transitions often surprise, but there’s a cumulative logic—ideas reappear in familiar but unexpected forms, like catching sight of yourself in a mirror maze.

Almost every track on the record is dedicated to an individual; the Maggie of “Argo” is Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts. The dedication is one of several clues to the album’s themes. As Pitchfork’s Nathan Reese pointed out, The Argonauts adapts the paradox of Jason’s Argo—a ship which replaced each of its parts, yet remained the same—to explore how the same paradox can occur in human bodies. Another clue is in the album’s artwork, a painting by the mid-century surrealist Remedios Varo showing a flame-haired woman receiving a ball of wool from a shadowy figure whose chest seems to be a door into a labyrinth. Varo’s paintings are windows into other worlds; she often depicted mysterious machines and androgynous figures. Her work is also a gateway into the philosophical, political and spiritual foundations of a countercultural identity that persists to this day; her reading list included Carl Jung, the I-Ching, and Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi stories, and she was deeply invested in witchcraft. There are theories for what her paintings represent, but never answers.

That sense of uncertainty folded into recognition is made explicit in “Torno-me eles e nao eu (For Remedios),” the first half of a grand central diptych that encapsulates Queen of Golden Dogs’ genius. In multi-tracked harmony, Chaney sings Fernando Pessoa’s 1930 poem, “Não sei quantas almas tenho” (“I don’t know how many souls I have”). Pessoa, one of Portugal’s most revered 20th-century poets, wrote under dozens of aliases he called “heteronyms,” lots of them variations of the word for “anonymous” in various languages. Coincidentally or not, Pessoa is Portuguese for “person”—what a status to be born into. No wonder he always felt “estranho,” as he laments in this poem: a stranger even to himself. Pessoa’s obsession with his multiple personas apparently bordered on the pathological; he reported seeing the faces of his heteronyms in the mirror. Perhaps he suffered from dissociations that would these days be diagnosed as a disorder; perhaps, through his interest in spiritualism and the occult (Aleister Crowley was a pen pal), he had a gift for seeing beyond the visible and rational. Chaney’s laminated harmonies are similarly resistant to unification, growing purposely distorted as they gather towards a crescendo.

“Torno-me” never resolves, but instead leads us into other half of the frame: “Paplu (Love That Moves the Sun),” a nearly 10-minute, white-knuckle spectacular that’s among the greatest slabs of prog electronics made this century: polyrhythmic clutter and melismatic voices hurtling along at high speed, elements thrown out into new constellations with every twist and turn, contracting and expanding like a whole universe seen from infinity. Over and over, “Paplu” finds a foothold and climbs higher, closer to something like ecstasy, or oblivion. It’s been two months since I first heard it, and I’ve never gotten all the way through without shaking my head and laughing. It’s so alien it forces you to reach for absurd metaphors. Like the blind man and the elephant, you can’t grasp it as a whole; you just feel your way through and hope you don’t get trampled. We’re left with the gloomy echoes of “Sand Tar Man Star (For Aurellia),” an ascending lattice of crumpled metal and wordless voices. It feels like the beginning of the next story rather than the end of this one.

There’s a line from an old NME review: “It’s like opening your bedroom curtains one morning and discovering that some fucker’s built the Taj Mahal in your back garden.” Fitting, probably, that the writer chose a puffed-up mausoleum to describe Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. But it comes to me again as I listen to Queen of Golden Dogs, and instead I imagine waking up to the sparkling towers of the Emerald City, in the Land of Oz: The view is radiant, even blinding—but those are your own green-tinted glasses filling in the color. It’s self-evidently splendid, but what you make of it is up to you.


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