Album review: Secret of Elements – ‘Chronos’: the worlds of classical and electronic pirouette

The Breakdown

A decade in a life lived richly and well, presented on an album which straddles two worlds which in recent times are becoming ever better acquainted - that of modern classical and electronica; quite a project. The two don't quite know each well enough yet to not occasionally misstep and decide to dance safely, but when Johann really hits home the two pirouette gloriously.
InFiné 7.9

THE GERMAN composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Johann Pätzold, who records as Secret of Elements, has announced the release of his first album since 2011’s Minds; it’s entitled Chronos, and it’s with us this week.

We’re told that Chronos charts a decade during which Pätzold learned to deal with mental illness – his first album was written in hospital in the middle of a nervous breakdown; it tells in sound of his travels to the Mediterranean to save lives during the refugee crisis, and how he fell in love and lost that love. In fact, with this record, which charts a decade lived through ups and downs and right at the bleeding edge of experience in sound, he declares himself a ‘musical activist’.

He’s been busy in music (and elsewhere): In 2017 he was a guiding light in the realisation of Carl Craig’s Versus, in which the Detroit producer’s work was transposed through a classical filter. With InFiné, he released two EPs, Monumentum and Odesea, both of which were heavily influenced by the migration crisis and the reception of Syrian populations in Germany in 2015 and 2016.

And he is active in various spheres that touch upon his lived experience. After hospitalisation, he was invited to speak at medical conferences of his experiences and to introduce music as an alternative to medication for schizophrenia and depression.

In 2014, he was at thhe forefront of a campaign preventing the closure of the Volkstheater in his home city of Rostock, one of the last outlets for expression in a predominantly conservative city, known for its active and violent far right movement. And those two EPs for InFiné were heavily influenced by the migration crisis and the reception of Syrians in Germany. He organised the local response; after which engaged more actively, on the Mediterranean, making several journey.

Activist then, yes; musician, yes; but how does he fuse the two? In sound. Let’s step into the album and hear.

Johann Pätzold, aka Secret of Elements

As an opener, “Grace” leaves you in no doubt that Johann is serious about this musical business. Full of sombre cloud and steel and beauty, “Grace” reflects on a friend’s suicide attempt; as anyone who’s had the misfortune to feel life out that there, a gentle composure overtakes one in the heights and the depths. A grace, in fact. And that’s transmuted here into stirring piano, with plenty of beauty, enthralling, resonant, treading forward with real purpose over a semi-human sweep of choral sustain; voices themselves alchemically altered in processing, and full of power. Now there’s an opener.

Mischa Blanos, who records for InFiné, lends his pianist’s skills to “A Last Waltz”, a track which reflects on happier times, we’re told: Johann’s wedding and the birth of his children. What begins as a rather lovely piece playing well inside the pocket of modern composition gains heft and strength in complexity and expression, rattlingly intricate in places.

“Memento” narrates the epic journey undertaken by a refugee Syrian mother whom Johann accompanied from Greece to Germany, this travail told in emotive swell; there’s plenty of depth herein, slow, muted squeaks, the accoutrements of instruments and players gathered to launch forth. A simple two-chord back-and-forth slowly layers in ticking percussion, found sound, electronic colour; you sense the burgeoning swell of sound about to hit, and hit it does, spiralling out in plaintive violins; for me, evoking the passage of a hugely changing landscape, deracination morphing to sea to an unfamiliar safety. There’s beauty abutting a certain bleakness; minor chord prettiness, sadness at its heart.

“Astral” whirls us away from such worldly concerns in synth-plainsong, which dawns into a soaring, colourful polyphony. The melodies raise hairs intermittently, such is their their pure tone and combining.

“Nothing Lost Yet” picks up a steady kickdrum and gains ever more propulsion, rolling down into a an almost deep house tropic of electronica, a high sun of electronica with one foot on the dancefloor while remaining old-skool ambient. Sometimes the simple things are the best.

“Cassini” fuses analogue ambient ‘tronica with a more modern compositional approach; a piano figure marking time with clattering percussive undertow, all swathed and eventually subsumed by cascades of old-skool melodic synth chatter. It has grandeur, that’s for sure; it’s music to survey a cosmic vista to, much as that lonely probe did for a decade and more. It’s named, of course, for the space probe that spent almost 13 years exploring Saturn before burning up in its upper atmosphere.

The following “Vinculum” is built around an Indian mantra, and dates from the period when Johann was travelling in assistance of refugees; it stands as tribute to a child who drowned in the Med. For this piece, Johann turned to the time-honoured sanctity of the church organ – more specifically, an 18th-century Lütkemüller organ in the Marienkirche in Gnoien, some 50km south-east of Rostock. Those churchly tones, used to such deft, distorted effect by Tim Hecker, here form the basis of a fusing mantra, a breathless sustain, a sweep, punctuated by deft piano interjections in a Harold Budd manner, and with an Arabic vocal. We’re told it’s Johann’s attempt to seek unity in a reconciliation of tragedy. Strings add timbre and a processional decorum as the song progresses.

“Liebe” pulls down just a touch from the vale of tears and into simple piano and twin violin, swinging together in a 6/8 lacrimosa with a very Mitteleuropean folk feel; very much, I feel, a necessary coda to “Vinculum”.

And that’s where things change. “Rage” absolutely steamrollers into being in a fiery matrix of electronic percussion, humming and clanking and skittering. before really catching alight in a slowly rising howl of sound; we’re told he employs the Shepard scale, in which two cyclically rising octaves are played on top of each other in a staggered fashion to create the illusion of an infinite swell. It’s gut-punch of pure musical anger.

… and softer once more for “Aurora”, a deeper, more contemplative essay for electronics, chorus and harp, which seems to swing into Earthrise, massive and awe-inspiring. The harp and the vocal contributions come courtesy French musician Laure Brisa.

It’s left then, to “Mein Schmerz” to pull the heavy drapes to on Johann’s past decade rendered in music; which it does with massed strings, deeply melodic, Johann uttering one reverbed word at the beginning.

Secret of Elements’ Chronos willbe released by InFiné digitally, on CD and on vinyl on April 23rd. It’s available to order now at the label’s Bandcamp page.

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