Back in '91 Cevin Key and Dwayne Goettel of Skinny Puppy put together a kind of "side project" called Doubting Thomas. The one full length album they released under that name, The Infidel, had a more atmospheric and streamlined sound than their primary act. It was described as "music for imaginary films." Upon listening to James Church's new project, Pandora's Black Book, I was immediately reminded of that album. Though, as you make your way through this collection of diverse tracks a number of influences seem quite evident. In fact Black Brothel may suffer from too much diversity in the minds of some. I can't say that's an assessment with which I concur.
Church is primarily known as Lucidstatic and his acclaimed Tympanik Audio debut, Gravedigger, was a breakbeat masterpiece showcasing gutsy, visceral cut-and-paste rhythms patched together with hasty atmospheres. It was an album that left a solid, memorable impression in the minds of many audiophiles. PBB was advertised as something much different and piqued everyone's curiosity with the promise of mastery in alternate realms of Industrial wizardry. Much of the material on Black Brothel succeeds in this regard. It's certainly a grand, labyrinthine performance with surprises at every unpredictable twist and turn.
At the album's center is a marvelous track titled "Between." On the first listen it seems like a synth-heavy, unremarkable number but further spins uncover its depth and power. It features an oblique melody matched by some acidic synth play. For just over two minutes you don't even realize there isn't an actual beat until a minor drum fades into the background. The build up is remarkable and the Matrix-inspired voice sample adds some context to the rich atmosphere. It's a pulsing drone almost devoid of rhythmic context that makes you want to move.
"Handless" sets a moody yet frenetic tone for the collection with plenty of ambiance, some engaging breakbeat passages and a plethora of inspired pads. "Dark Passenger" maintains a solemn aura with mysterious vocal samples fading in and out much like you might hear on a yelworC track yet the synth work is much more sublime. And "Empty Words" calls to mind the brilliant cut-and-paste mixing of DJ Shadow without resorting to straight Hip Hop. In fact, this song is so rich, dense and glitchy that it would probably give Josh Davis pause.
By the time "Whiteout" rolls around Black Brothel begins to reveal a pretty drastic arc, delving into Ambient territory with mild, clicking beats and plenty of icy atmosphere. Most of the mid-section reflects a dreamier tone and it isn't until "Adverse" that things pick up again with a disjointed and distorted snare rhythm contrasted by light piano awash in swirling, synthetic melody. "Slowburn" features the CD's catchiest and most accessible cadence weighted down by an oppressively heavy spirit. It's an interesting piece that unfortunately drags on for a few minutes too long and suffers from over-repetitiveness. "Threshhold" comes across as a kind of coda to the aforementioned "Dark Passenger" and the album ends with the luxurious "Wavelength," an expansive and nearly overwhelming ambient piece that builds itself up, then breaks down into an ominous display of brooding strength and unsettling power.
While some of the material - the title track in particular - can come across as pedantic or even tedious, never really opening up to any sense of direction or resolution, most of the tracks on Black Brothel makes for a fascinating listen. This is soundtrack music for a film you get to create in your own head. It's a brooding, constantly changing work of inspired prowess that manages to stand firmly on its own when held up against Church's other recordings. There are hints during the course of this seventy minute journey that slyly single out the specific creative mind we've come to know under a different name but it would be unwise to approach Pandora's Black Book thinking you know what to expect. I can guarantee that it will be this album's unanticipated moments that will bring you back again and again.
See also: Review: Gravedigger