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Cul De Sac - Death of the Sun

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Artist: Cul De Sac

Album: Death of the Sun

Label: Strange Attractors Audio House

Review date: Mar. 25, 2003

Sample-Based Reinvention

In the liner notes to the final John Fahey record, Red Cross, Cul de Sac’s Glenn Jones reminisces with some fondness about the personality clashes that plagued/bolstered The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, his band’s 1997 collaboration with the legendary guitar innovator. About their often grouchy back-and-forth, Jones writes, “Despite my attempt to turn the tables on John and to keep him off-balance, I was unable to fend off the question he’d been leading up to all along: ‘What does Cul de Sac mean?’ I couldn’t answer.”

Whatever Fahey was driving at it’s clear he was onto something: if nothing else, Cul de Sac is a funny name for a band that has spent the last 13 years aggressively avoiding creative dead-ends. Particularly over the course of their last few albums – from the fabled Fahey session to last year’s Immortality Lessons, a live recording for WBRS that was deemed disastrous until the band realized that their wrong notes sounded “magically right” afterwards – it has become increasingly apparent that reinvention fuels Cul de Sac as much as a revision and refinement. Hence this year’s Death of the Sun, a record that Jones once promised would be “as much a departure as the Fahey collaboration was in its way,” and in fact turns out to be much more.

Each of the tracks on Death of the Sun save one (“Turok, Son of Stone”) is constructed using treated digital samples that, while distinct, share a particular aura of timelessness. These electronic sequences – manipulated samples of a 1930s 78-rpm of German vocal harmonies, Peruvian rainforest field recordings, a Creole lament from a 1946 recording, etc. – provide the bedrock upon which the band heaps the layers of organic, acoustic texture for which they’re best known. Even that description, though, implies a stratification of sound that doesn’t exist on Death of the Sun. This is largely because the samples were manipulated during the course of the recorded performance, allowing them a dexterity that rivals the rest of the instrumentation. On “I Remember Nothing More”, for example, Jonathan LeMaster’s bowed bass meshes wonderfully with the digitally altered crackle of Adelaide Van Wey’s melancholy Cajun vocal. With Jones’ acoustic guitar waltzing elegantly over top of the mix, no layer feels any more a part of 2003 than1946, or vice versa – while some quality of the cumulative whole feels more attuned to a year that preceded them both by eons.

There is sample-based rock that dilutes whatever potency once existed in a sliver of recorded history and there is the kind that bears the burden of making the rock dinosaur relevant again by awkwardly mashing it against the plastic beat-and-click of some perceived post-future-whatever. Death of the Sun does neither, opting instead to reach backwards and forwards through time and doing it with consummate ease. “I Remember Nothing More” skirts the edge of the primordial pool of ooze from which life first sprung and is simultaneously as forward thinking as anything I’ve heard this year. The opener, “Dust of Butterflies” is similarly elegant, turning a wobbly vocal sample into a shimmering pulsation of warm sound, over which floats the gentle prickle of acoustic guitar and a swooping violin line. The song really does sound like an imago shaking its paper-thin wings out for the test-flight – the rapidly crackling staccato of the sample like dust motes blowing gracefully in its virgin wake. The lone track not built with a sample, “Turok, Son of Stone”, might just as easily have been. Jon Proudman channels the music of “the Japaneses drum ensemble Ondeko-za, Balaganjur gamelan music from Bali, and various African drumming recordings” in a rumbling but well-controlled percussion frenzy that is simultaneously calming and ferocious. The incongruent sounds of Celtic wailing, a bleating hunting horn, and the repetitive morse-code of an analog synth somehow meld in the rumble.

It’s impossible to say whether Cul de Sac will go the sample-based route again, but if Death of the Sun leaves you yearning for more we’re at least promised the release of the outtakes under the title Synthetic Soul Conspiracy. Until then, this is required listening – the sound of life crawling out of the ooze and simultaneously taking flight.

By Nathan Hogan

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