Penalune: Come Hell Or High Water

Come Hell or High Water, which follows quickly on the heels of Christopher Ernst's earlier 2011 Penalune release, Less Of The Same, in fact gives us more of the same, if in slightly more cryptic form than the previous time around. In true slit-your-wrists fashion, Ernst's particular strain of dark electronic-ambient material plunges without compromise into a dark and diseased realm where desperation and despair are the dominant emotional terrain. “Aella” begins the recording with heavy breathing, the sound of someone out of breath or maybe an over-excited stalker, while cavernous rumblings and muffled detonations act as a soundtrack for what very well could be a flayed body being dragged through an underground tunnel during “Ephialtes.”

No mention is made of sound sources—not that it matters a whole lot, given how radically said materials have been transformed into industrial atmospheric elements—though field recordings (train clatter during “Hermann,” a woman's semi-distorted voice in “Abigail,” and what sounds like the processed gallop of a horse's hooves during “Federico”), electronics, guitars, cello, and voices would appear to be among the sound sources used for the recording. To his credit, Ernst typically achieves his effects through less-than-obvious means. Instead of bludgeoning the listener with painful salvos of dissonance, he lures him/her into his malignant world through gentle persuasion. In “Calico,” for instance, exhausted machines groan quietly under the strain of overexertion rather than convulse violently, and during “Della Vigna,” Ernst even allows bucolic bird chirps to appear alongside droning string tones (offsetting such a pleasant outdoor sound is a macabre voice whose indecipherable growl renders it all the more disturbing). The density and volume levels of the album gradually diminish as it inches towards its end, until faint cries of “Help me” surface amidst hand drums during the closing “Mohammed (Solitary Cellblock Rock).” Ernst is clearly in no hurry on Come Hell or High Water and on a number of pieces settles in for long stretches, with “Maxtla” a thirteen-minute stream of ethereal choral voices and shuddering strings and “Nkonda” a ten-minute exercise in nightmarish gloom and corrosion. In order to get the most out of the album, one should therefore try to attune onself to its slow crawl and allow it to unfold at its own pace.

September 2011