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L - Holy Letters

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Artist: L

Album: Holy Letters

Label: VHF

Review date: Jan. 18, 2005

When Rahsaan Roland Kirk recorded his loungily funky take on Minnie Ripperton’s classic “Loving You”, he turned a few chirping birds into a full-fledged if somewhat subdued seaside thunderstorm. He also injected his textless treatments with “uh-huh”’s and grunts of “yeah, honey, git it?” infusing the light-hearted tune with a slightly sinister hue.

This typically twisted Kirk rework may be the only music I’ve heard that remotely resembles L’s Holy Letters. L is the moniker of Hiroyuki Usui, one-time drummer for Fushitsusha and member of Marble Sheep. Recorded in 1989-90 and subsequently self-released with abysmal distribution, the album has now been lovingly reissued by VHF, along with a 7” single and one alternate take; the package is completed by a booklet containing new liners by Usui and Ben Chasny, with whom L will eventually release a collaborative disc.

Most definitely a fan, much of Chasny’s poetic prose – dripping with the purple incense he enjoys while listening to L – would engender suspicion of a Six Organs doppelganger, or precursor, or both. Nothing can be further from this listener’s experience, and a cursory glance at the title track’s lyrics affords important insight:

I used to believe
That when you dig down
Down into the depths of people’s souls
You find the same ingredients of existence

“I used to believe” functions as the refrain of disconnection, of the onset of plurality without the benefit of dialectical synthesis. The accompanying music follows suit, guitar exhalations hanging poised above seemingly infinite stretches of silence. The chords become more frequent, supplemented by pulsating vibes, and when L’s recitation begins, the voice sounds to me more quietly desperate than fatherly wise, as Chasny hears it. As the track builds, it gains in intensity and speed, drum brushes allaying none of the growing sense of unease.

“Holy Letter” is the centerpiece of the album when viewed as one extended suite, and it should be heard in that context. The venire is often serene, but the roiling white-heat psychedelia of Fushitsusha is present but sublimated; electric instruments, when present, vie with harmonium, didjeridu, cello and various assorted percussion, all creating a sonic blend in which every individual sound can be heard with stunning clarity. Even field recordings of muffled voices, waves and thunder – sounds that can easily be buried – are heard as stark backdrops against the silence. When the brew does reach boiling point, as in several of the five pieces called “Blues Trip,” the tam-tam and kettle drum eruptions are momentary, transient microcosms of emotion which then submerge again into the uneasy calm.

Holy Letters is a beautifully crafted journey into the subconscious of resignation. Like Mahler’s ninth symphony – another sprawling work that needs to be absorbed in one sitting – it juxtaposes the most delicate orchestration with passages of higher energy, volatility and thicker texture. The first and fourth movements of that late romantic work come close to prefiguring the continually morphing sounds and struggle of L’s wistfully nostalgic wisdom – a moment to moment awareness with many vivid memories disturbing the peace. Unlike Mahler, L is responsible for executing almost every orchestral and vocal part in his “symphony,” and he does so brilliantly, including some powerful slide playing on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Cold was the Ground.” I can’t recommend this reissue highly enough.

By Marc Medwin

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