Xela: The Dead Sea

Plenty of water clearly has gone under the bridge since the pretty pastoralia of Xela's Tangled Wool captivated listeners in 2004. In the interim, John Twells issued Where We're From the Birds Sing a Pretty Song with Yasume partner Gabriel Morley (aka Logreybeam) and established Type Records as a premiere outlet for progressive electronic music-making. Acting as midwife to an ever-growing catalogue of provocative releases has seemingly had a profound impact on his own work, judging by the radical tone of The Dead Sea; if anything, the release has more in common with the bold folk-psychedelia and nightmarish dreamscapes heard on the Type releases Pale Ravine by Deaf Center and Night of the Ankou by The North Sea and Rameses III than Twells' own Xela debut For Frosty Mornings and Summer Nights. The Dead Sea's titles signify as much as song titles like “Creeping Flesh,” “Savage Ritual,” and “Sinking Cadavers” intimate that the collection is anything but bucolic.

The album title itself alludes to an overall ‘maritime' concept, specifically the tale of an ocean voyage derailed by a fatal encounter with zombies—Night of the Living Dead: The Sea Version, perhaps. The album's dense, droning set-pieces teem with unusual sounds, with the intermittent appearance of Twells' familiar acoustic and electric guitars lending stability to the off-kilter proceedings (minimal strums lend a naturalizing feel to an orchestra of thumb pianos and silvery shards in “Linseed,” while guitars struggle to be heard amidst the dense smothering pyschedelia of “Savage Ritual”). “The Gate,” a brooding drone overture of groaning string clusters, immediately transports the listener into an alien and disorienting realm.

Though there is an electronic dimension to the album (used to literally picturesque effect on “Creeping Flesh,” for example), Twells' incorporation of unconventional, sometimes Gamelan acoustic sounds proves consistently arresting. Galloping horse hooves and a demented music box provide a base for what sounds like a wheezing melodica and harpsichord in “Drunk on Salt Water” yet the jarring sound world can't conceal the song's underlying melancholy. With distorted voices babbling amidst keening strings and clattering percussion, “Humid At Dusk” is likewise alien in sound design yet here too Twells' fundamental musicality eventually dominates when the song's molten electric guitars swell to nosebleed levels. When the incandescent shimmer and haze of “Briefly Seen” segue into the stately grace of “Never Going Home,” the lyrical episode reminds one of Twells' earlier style. The dramatic character of The Dead Sea indubitably reveals, however, that the Xela style has evolved and boldly so.

November 2006