Tuesday, 3 June 2008

THE RESIDENTS: The Festival Of Death

After nearly thirty years I think I have discovered the ideal listening environment for Eskimo. The accompanying booklet recommends hearing it on headphones while reading the descriptive text that comes with it, and while I have succumbed to doing that from time to time, I usually treat it as a “Do Not Throw Stones At This Notice” notice would expect to be treated. Then again Eskimo is not the sort of record one is inclined to play regularly – perhaps, in my instance, once every four or five years, as a pleasing reminder that it’s there.

But a new remastered edition has lately appeared on CD, and I listened to it at the beginning of last week, on an especially grey and showery Bank Holiday Monday morning which resembled November rather than May, in the kitchen while cooking a leisurely breakfast. It was not a warm day – I had to switch the central heating back on – and my general feeling was therefore indrawn, introverted, introspective. I kept the CD on at moderate volume; at times its synthesised Arctic winds vanished beneath waves of sizzling, at others the urgent voices and pulverising beats suddenly leapt out like a crocodile wouldn’t.

Still the music wove its way into my fabric; and I would heartily recommend not reading the text while listening to, or experiencing, the record, although the text’s extended irony – at least, for the Residents’ sake, I hope it’s irony – is an integral part of the F For Fake adventure that is taking place. Concentrating on the music (although, as I say, this music gets deeper into you the less you “listen” to it), from its forlorn hunting horn at the beginning to its curiously uplifting end 39 or so minutes later (for such an elaborate concept, the Residents were still smart enough to keep it concise), it’s easy to extemporise on the enormous influence this record wielded well beyond its time; in particular I cannot imagine half of Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 happening without it - all those not quite tuned melodies, those not quite syncopated beats, those unidentifiable instrumental flourishes and hums, the general air of Not Here, or even in any polar Eskimo community one might recognise. Then I subsequently return to the booklet and its detailed descriptions of the polar Eskimo way of living, including the ritual slaughtering of female infants if there are no male infants to balance the numbers, the forced bathing in children’s urine of menstruating women and other such Dark Ages delights; there is a sardonic aside about this way of life having disappeared thanks to Government welfare programmes such that Eskimos now sit in council houses watching TV reruns.

So the music is necessarily coloured by this knowledge, and is hence not quite the elegy for a lost civilisation one might assume it to be. Nevertheless it does an acute and meticulous job of recreating the mood and environment of the six months of eternal night – the walrus hunting, the sensory deprivation and temporary madness, the warding off or summoning of magic spirits – and musically was another crucial building block in its year, 1979, a year I now see is rivalled only by 1967 in terms of seemingly unending reams of creativity and adventure.

“The Festival Of Death” is the concluding track, lasting just over ten minutes; it begins with the familiar whirligig of wind, followed by a steady encroachment of voices and underspecified instruments (although Henry Cow’s Chris Cutler appears on drums, and there is a direct Escalator link with the presence of Don Preston on synthesisers – more Phantom Music?), solemn chants suddenly intercepted by furious beating of skins and ululatory incantations (the women seeing off the mask of death, chanting and arguing for life) before, eventually and finally, the dawn comes, the dead lose their control over the community (marimbas maintaining a constant heartbeat), and an initially vague but increasingly prominent synthesiser motif becomes apparent; this proceeds to resolve into an alienatingly beautiful melody which after nearly forty minutes of darkness comes as a true liberator, and all ends peacefully, now just the wind, blowing and howling for as long as, or longer than, the world is prepared to turn.