Naming one’s musical project Magus presents an interesting proposition: despite having various definitions behind the word, the basis of the term is deeply related to magic, wisdom and wonderment, be it the Christian sort, the paganistic type or one with a Zoroastrian origin. The duo behind this meta-Metal group, Leslie Low and Mark Dolmont, takes the horns of the Metal beast and tries to harness it with their bright-eyed experimentation and, along the path, they attempt to transmogrify it into something less associated with the usual Wagnerian bombast of most Metal music. Instead the album is a veritable valiant task to steer it more towards an introspection of modern day agnosticism.
Using the creative platform of Metal has been a contentious issue in the midst of the intense debate amongst the Metalheads, the music hipster crowd and those who have been following the development of Metal, especially extreme Metal, for the past decade. The rise and the consequent success of hipster Metal since the mid-2000s has been a hot potato. On the one hand, many Metal fans see the non-Metal heads as hijacking the genre to further their own ends. On the other the fans and supporters of many such experimenters see such moves as a necessary progression of Metal out of its hitherto ghettoised position. The elevation of the avant-garde forms of extreme Metal has gained much aesthetic cred in established publications like The Wire, Pitchfork and Rock-a-Rolla, and in recent years, many such acts made frequent appearances in festivals of all scales and types all across Europe and America.
The question is this: is Metal just one of those genres ripe for post-modernist experimentation or is it more of a modernist impulse to push its form outwards and to the edges, destroying traditional genre markers along the way? The next logical question would be: who then has the right to do it?
In fact many stalwarts of extreme Metal are leading the way: Earth and Celtic Frost are two very respected veterans of the scene who constantly challenge themselves and have produced astonishing albums even after more than two decades into their careers. Along the way, many are inspired by them and the wellspring of creation and innovation fuelled the burst of new bands in the 1990s and especially so in the 2000s with Sunn0))) and Isis being the leaders of the various sub-genre packs. The record labels set up by members of these bands serve as propagators and hubs of bands in similar veins. The respectability extreme Metal earned in recent years is definitely in part due to the relentless effort put in by such acts and labels to bridge the fields of the avant-garde, the headbangers, the hipster enclave, and the more adventurous casual music fans out there.
So where do we place Magus in this whole scheme of things? Leslie Low and Mark Dolmont are not your typical Metalheads if one is to look cursorily at their credentials: Low with his stint in folk rock outfit, Humpback Oak, and post-rock ensemble, The Observatory, and Dolmont, with his main music activity in field recordings and sound engineering, are far from your typical Metal pedigree. So dilettantes they are then, one may conclude?
If one were to focus on the creative plotline of Leslie Low, then the connection with experimentation and Metal might not be as farfetched as it superficially seems. The long trajectory of Low’s musical growth from Humpback Oak to that of The Observatory (just to take two of his most well-known projects) is filled with side-steps and dips into fields less associated with the nominal descriptors many would often latch onto the two groups: folk rock and post-rock. Humpback Oak, Low’s first musical project which he started with his high school friends, was influenced by the usual suspects of Neil Young and other singer-songwriter types, with their confessional or observational mode of lyrical expression and simple musical arrangements (so it seems) set to carry the words without informing the listeners of any possible scope for transgression, if one were to merely hear and not listen. But if one would to listen carefully to the progression from Pain-Stained Morning in 1994 to Ghostfather in 1997, and then on to SideASideB in 1998, Low and friends had been busily resetting the template of their increasingly complex song forms. The use of jazz and musical cadences from non-Western music is often seamlessly subsumed beneath the earthy voice of Low, which most listeners will focus on. The honesty one loves about Low’s songs, as well as the frailty which he is not afraid to demonstrate in his albums with Humpback Oak, more often than not disguises his penchant for experimentation and the quest to expand his musical adventure. His unassuming onstage/offstage persona that lures one into his lyrical wonderment about life and love is actually his first step into Magus-hood. The shifting alchemical music path in the following decade with The Observatory is when his fans would not only follow him through on the ride of his musical vision with his compatriots, but also allows his fans to brace themselves for the surprising musical turns into which the band is readily and willingly leaping.
Time of Rebirth , which heralded the birth of a new musical journey with Low’s bandmates in The Observatory in 2004, did not so much surprise his fans as establish the grounds to connect his old creative self with the new. Nominally folk-rock but restless at points, Low created a backwoods-soaked suite of deep rumination before the band took a bold step to release Blank Walls the following year, which sees Low upsetting his familiar song-forms to present an album of controlled intensity. Using unusual structures and with improvisation coming in more prominently in the way the song-writing process was carried out in the gestation of this album, it is neither post-rock nor progressive folk, but perhaps a 21st century lament of existentialist doubt. The beauty of the first two albums lies in the synthesis of the band’s filtering and distillation of acts like The Band and Bob Dylan with those of Progressive Rock and jazz fusion.
By the third album, A Far Cry From Here, which often explodes into the fury of the most stentorian rock eruption of bands like King Crimson, The Observatory has already laid the cobblestones for their raison d’etre: experimentation and the relentless pushing forward of the sounds that the band members want to hear. The music of the Observatory should be seen as more than mere tribute and homage to the bands and artistes which they are into (what some would call Collector’s Rock). Instead, it is also the manifestation of a music which they want to hear and that no one has yet to create.
The cover of the last album of The Observatory is designed by Justin Bartlett, who found fame with his graphic works for extreme Metal bands like Sunn0))) and Aural Noir. This is therefore a hint to the subject of this review, Sun Worshipper. The Metal connection seems hipster-like in the light of the recent successes of the various drone, ambient and doom Metal acts. Even the title of the album seems like a knowing nod to Sunn0))) or the psychedelic/mystical allusions of Om (coincidentally also a duo). But the heart of the album goes much deeper than this surface comparison. Besides the Minimalist cycles of most of the tracks, Low and Dolmont are restlessly prodding the musical material at hand. The last track of the album (which the two used as the title of the album), Ancient Worshipper, is a stately etude on the mantra. With the prominent foreground of the guitar and its modal form at play throughout, the power of the track is in its ability to evoke a cosmic breath redolent of that of a Buddhist/Hindu chant.
When one listens to the first track, “Chakravyuha”, an OM-like cyclical Metal bombast of hypnotic proportion which builds and builds with various found sounds and percussive effects to a cataclysmic end, one then understands the bookending of the two tracks as the prologue and the epilogue of the album. Throughout the album, the constant interference of field recordings (of very Singaporean nature) and almost-Industrial type sound bites serves as points of intentional distraction and reminder of the world around us. The religious allegory made throughout the album seems to be a plea for the peace of one’s mind and soul. By “Slow Birth”, the third track, the pulse of the album starts to stabilise but the interferences mentioned earlier are still present – the rhythmic course of the suite becomes less frenetic but more assured. And by “Synthetic Waves”, the second last track, the inner musical mechanism of the album is ready to segue and fuse into the psychedelic but non-kaleidoscopic calm pulsation of the finale.
The closest one can think of offhand if one wishes to strike any comparison between this album and the musical landscape out there would be Earth’s two mid-2000s masterpieces, Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method and The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull. While the classic band taps into the Manifest Destiny of the American West and the roots signposted in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music epic box set of yesteryear’s Old Weird America, Magus turns to the East to search for cues of history and spiritualism (however, the inclusion of soundbites of Singaporean political leaders talking within some of the tracks, also hints at some subtle comments on perhaps the state of this island republic on the duo’s part). This is where the full picture of what this Magus wants to show us across the nine tracks can be found on this debut album of the group and the fledging label, Ujikaji. Despite the Metallic influence one hears, the heart of the project is in the search for peace within this chaotic and seemingly apocalyptic world of today. The album dredges into the core of extreme Metal and emerges without the kitsch of Metal’s sometimes Wagnerian pomposity but arms itself with what Leslie Low is always excelling in: his bright-eyed sense of wonderment which does not diminish over the years but rather magus-like, transforms into something self-assured and dignified.
(Photos from Ujikai Records)
Joseph Tham is a history educator as well as an independent researcher. His research interests include local and global avantgarde, alternative and underground musics, histories and subcultures. He used to run a record shop, Flux Us, and had organised gigs for local and international experimental and avant-garde artists.
Editor’s Note: You can buy Sun Worshipper from http://ujikaji.net/