WHITNEY JOHNSON has been releasing albums that explore gorgeous deep inner space in song and sound as Matchess for a number of years now.
She began in 2015 with the downtempo ambience of Somnaphoria, vocodered vocals, clock-ticking beats, swirls and aural glitter to put The Orb to shame in the cosmic stakes.
Since that blissful debut it’s fair to say that, if anything, she’s slowed down even further: 2016’s Sacracorpa brought a neo-classical colour, plainsong and cellos unfolding with beauty amongst a light electronica framing; last year’s cassette-only Huizkol explored the purity of alpha, beta and theta waves.
Her new album sees her step aboard Drag City’s fine bus and it’ll be out come February. It’s entitled Sonescent, and it arrived as a concept whilst she was undertaking ten days of Vipassana meditative practice at the Dhamma Vaddhana meditation centre in the high plains outside Joshua Tree, California. This period requires, among other codes of discipline, the practice of Noble Silence: that is, the silence of body, speech, and mind.
As she began to explore this space and the layers of active engagement with the world and its troubles fell away, she began to hear things you tune out from in the normal business of a hyper-engaged, 21st-century day: tinnitus; breathing; the heartbeat, and another pulsing – unknown yet wholly familiar. Sp she kept listening.
In time she began to hear songs but wasn’t able to record them in any way due to her strict retreat. It was only upon her return from the high desert that she was able to sketch out what had passed for her in that experience.
In a departure from her previous work she decided to score the songs she had heard and recalled for other musicians to bring to life, a first for a musician used to wholly producing her work independently. This process took time: firstly to capture from memory, then to invite and assemble collaborators. And then she had to begin a process of subversion, inversion; pushing the songs back into the depths, barely heard, transmitting from deep within, without.
She took inspiration from albums such as John Cale’s Paris 1919 and the drifts of Phill Niblock and Éliane Radigue. The baroque orchestral pop of the former is that which she recaptures from her meditation; they’re overlayered in the mix by layers of othering, of the world at large, the sounds of the body, the sounds of the mind, more. She employed binuaral sine waves, an ARP Odyssey synth, loops; but absolutely no input mixing techniques. Everything falls beneath descending layers of gauze, there, but most often entirely opaque. You’re invited to reach inside, cover yourself in those soft layerings, and thus leave the present to one side.
Sonescent splits exactly in half in two tracks, two sides; the first is entitled “Almost Gone”, suggesting that state of decoupling that, if you’re not a follower of meditation practice yourself, you’ve perhaps experienced in the hypnogogic state – the transition between wakefulness and sleep – when external stimuli recede, distance, bleed and merge with your own inner thought stream, distant traffic and memories merging. When I was younger, I would lose all sense of myself spatially, and have brief, rapturous moments of feeling a hundred feet long.
And the opener, “Almost Gone”, much like the Mark Hollis solo album, begins in 30 seconds or more of absolute silence – or rather, it begins in the background ambience of wherever you happen to be starting in its journey. Slowly, so very slowly, it arises from your immediate sonic context, at first in a creamy oscillating drone that slows to find your rhythm, or you, it; a distant folksy carousel begins – a warm vocal, perhaps a cor anglais? – the song revealed to Whitney in her innermost study, overheard from a distant room of the self and recaptured through the prismatic haze of recall, the sonorous pulse slowing and quickening. You have to peer through that to get to the melody.
That fades in turn, is lost to the riverflow of consciousness, submerged beneath what for all the world sounds like the hum of the universe, re-emerges retooled as a different chamber quartet melody; fades again, returns as something with indie-psych guitars and a gospel feel, akin to Spiritualized, that slow grace of a Ladies And Gentlemen … track. Again, almost appearing by sonar, a trace on the wind. This period of guitars and strings breaks up and through, allows you to surface before the profoundest universal hum yet engulfs you, with an exhaling, lonely harmonium in counterpoint seeing you home.
Just once second shorter, “Through The Wall” picks up the thread in a choral drone cluster akin to the territory mapped out by Bing & Ruth, drones driven by the hum of air, gradually shifting in tone like waters meeting. It opens into an almost bluegrassy chamber folk sweep; a memory, maybe, tied to the land like a ghost, continually present while only revealing itself to the deeply aware. That confection decays to a inland sea of tonal eddy of a Boxhead Ensemble nature, mutates in clicking, a much deeper and more corrupted retrieval layered and layered and taped to tape to tape to tape, sonic fidelity corrupted; patterings and whirrings of maybe an animalistic and ceremonial nature fleeting past. The second passage of the song, which pivots out from that denuded folk merrymaking, ventures deeper into a tape decay and pure tone adventure before the song itself pulls you back from deep in the subconscious.
There may be things I’ve written about herein that don’t actually exist in the music or exist solely for you; that’s part of this record’s magic and I suspect Whitney would be pleased. On an early listen to the first track, I absolutely swear I heard things I could never find thereafter. It’s a difficult record to focus on in review listening terms, too … I found myself floating downstream in my head, suddenly snapping to from the far end of some chain of thought referral, rejoining the present. At one point I even went to stand outside in the autumn drizzle to regain a sense of a self. No; just coffee actually, I get what you’re implying. I’d been spirited away on an otherwise humdrum afternoon.
If any of the artists I’ve referred to above light up your night sky, I would humbly and wholly suggest you take a swim herein; to which artists I’d add Laraaji and claire rousay. You want a full-bore, transporting, drone submersion? I suggest, humbly, this is one of the best.
Matchess’s Sonescent will be released by Drag City digitally and on vinyl on February 25th; you can order your copy here.