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Issue 124

Picking O’er the Bones

Various Artists (Mordant Music, 2009)

BY Daniel Trilling in Culture Digest | 26 JUN 09

The title of this release could easily be passed over as a wry nod to the fact that it’s a collection of recent highlights from a tiny electronica label – a ‘hits’ compilation hardly likely to top the album charts – but it also sets the music in an appropriately gloomy context. In recent years, while an imploding music industry has been cheerfully cannibalizing its own archives (the suffocatingly triumphant, rock-heritage obsessed music press is one symptom), the most interesting leftfield developments have dealt in melancholy hues, from Burial’s lament for the lost days of rave music, to the wild, sprawling, doom metal of Asva’s What You Don’t Know Is Frontier (2008).

Since its inception in 2002, Mordant Music (a name for both the label, and the recorded output of its founders) has ploughed a similarly dark furrow, mixing the atmospherics of dubstep with arcane plunderings from the past century of recorded sound. This was done to greatest effect on Dead Air (2006), an album themed around ghostly television broadcasts and narrated by the former British television continuity announcer Philip Elmsmore. Comparable in approach, if not in execution, to the Ghost Box record label, which presents its recordings as the output of some provincial 1960s polytechnic, this marriage of psychedelic electronica with peculiarly British references works to unsettling effect. The critics Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher (who blogs as K-Punk) have tagged the trend ‘hauntology’, a term borrowed from Jacques Derrida. The idea of ‘hauntology’ has political connotations, and in this musical context, all these references to Britain’s postwar public service culture are more than nostalgia; they’re hints at an alternate reality to the current, crisis-ridden system of global capitalism.

Mordant Music, who contribute roughly half the material to Picking O’er the Bones, add satirical bite to this concept. ‘The Hauntological Song’ begins with a blast of tacky baroque organ, before launching into a melee of rolling beats and murmuring voices. Similarly, the unassuming title of ‘Hummdrumm’ belies its warm euphoria. The knowing humour, layers of bass and the heavy theoretical context form something of a barrier – to retain a sense of identity in the anonymous bitstream of digital music distribution, perhaps – but once crossed, each track is a window into a compelling imaginary world.

If ‘proper’ dubstep is going the way of drum and bass before it – priding pummelling basslines over rhythmic looseness and sonic innovation, then Shackleton, the other main contributor to this album, shows that the creative energy has moved to the fringes of the genre. His minimal, Middle Eastern-tinged compositions are a counterweight to Mordant’s jesterly antics; what melodic respite there is in Shackleton’s music only reaffirms its general, bleached-out, skeletal feel. A different kind of bleakness closes the album, however: Mordant’s ‘Marston Moor’, named after a battle in the English Civil War, is a chaotic mess of horn sounds and distorted growling. It stands for the label project as a whole: not so much resurrecting the dead as rifling compulsively through the debris.