Xela: In Bocca Al Lupo

Not all that many years ago, the Xela recordings For Frosty Mornings and Summer Nights (2002) and Tangled Wool (2003) situated John Twells firmly within the fleeting “folktronica” movement whose pastoral acoustic-electronic sounds were populated by artists like Greg Davis and Pedro. But 2006's The Dead Sea made it eminently clear that the Type Recordings overseer had retired that earlier bucolic style in favour of something considerably more macabre and unsettling, a development further confirmed by “Calling For Vanished Faces,” Twells' contribution to Barge Recordings' MGR / Xela split disc earlier this year.

Which brings us to the latest Xela chapter, In Bocca Al Lupo, an even more uncompromising plunge into electronic nightscaping. While The Dead Sea found its inspiration in the horror movies of Dario Argento and Umberto Lenzi, the new release draws upon Christian religion for its conceptual underpinning, a fact clearly indicated by the Matthew Woodson's cover illustration of a reclining and severely bloodied Christ figure (Twells' research for the material took him to Spain and Italy where he visited various cathedrals and churches). Initially composed for a fear-themed Chicago art installation, In Bocca Al Lupo is more properly a single, hour-long work that's indexed into four parts, all of which are thirteen minutes or more, with the last tipping the twenty-minute mark.

Even more dominant than the nightmarish howls, creaks, clanks, bells, and crackling pops that course through “Ut Nos Vivicaret” is the production style with the piece sounding as if it were recorded using a single microphone in a dank and cavernous underground chamber. Like disparate sounds floating in a chemical bath, ambient noise (hiss, clicks) and blurry bell tones meld into a rust-coated drone before “In Deo Salutari Meo,” a slower, gamelan-styled meditation of church bell tones takes over. Industrial streams of motor-driven ripples gradually challenge the tones for dominance, after which “In Misericordia” takes the listener on a fifteen-minute tour through the darker corners of the unconscious. Sounds at this juncture blend into an opaque, slow-moving mass where windswept howls and other encrusted noises swell into a humongous black cloud that consumes everything in its path. Heavy Winged member Jed Bindeman, who played with Twells on the Barge Recordings' piece, plays drums on the closing “Beatae Immortalitatis,” the noisiest of the four sections. A merciless cyclone of oscillator-generated squalls and thrashing drums, the obviously challenging piece could easily send the listener new to the noise genre running from the room. Bindeman drops out about halfway through, surrendering the stage to a wavering mass of electrical transmissions that calls to mind the early electronic explorations of the Krautrock era.

Make no mistake: In Bocca Al Lupo is a harrowing journey, and anyone listening for traces of Twells' earlier style will search in vain because that's ancient history in the Xela universe; he clearly inhabits an entirely different galaxy these days, one populated by the likes of Wolf Eyes and Fear Falls Burning. And so it should be: even though In Bocca Al Lupo is a far more challenging listen than Tangled Wool, Twells, like any artist worth his/her salt, is a work-in-progress and his output reflects that restless evolution.

December 2008