Release Date: April 16, 2013
Label: Tri Angle
Even if you’ve never heard a lick of the Haxan Cloak’s music, you can guess that he makes some pretty sinister stuff. It’s right there in the name, after all: The first part comes from Häxan, a 1922 silent film about witchcraft and demonic possession; the second part, evoking the outerwear favored by vampires and villains everywhere, functions as a metaphor for the occult itself. Yorkshire, England’s Bobby Krlic has used the moniker since 2009, when he released his self-titled debut album on the metal-leaning Aurora Borealis label. Despite titles like “Raven’s Lament” and “Burning Torches of Despair,” a wide gulf separated his unremittingly bleak electro-acoustic instrumentals from anything that might scan as metal; here was a dude operating way out on his own, crossing the blustery heaths not with Leviathan or Xasthur on his iPod, but Ligeti and Xenakis.
While we’re talking about his name, it bears noting that Krlic’s alias is probably the least original thing about him, hewing, as it does, so closely to the pattern so popular in sepulchral electronic music right now: Demdike Stare, Vatican Shadow, Sandwell District, Silent Servant, Ghost Box, Mordant Music, Ancient Methods, Pendle Coven — artists who have all mined, in one way or another, occult mythology and dystopian menace. It’s fair to say, without denigrating any of those acts, that dark-side music is on trend right now, and has been for quite some time; Simon Reynolds’ treatise on “Hauntology” appeared in The Wire way back in 2006 — two full years before goth-crunk minstrels Salem kicked off the mercifully short-lived “witch house” movement, we might add. But Excavation, despite its home on the atmosphere-obsessed Tri Angle label, goes way beyond shtick. There’s not one ounce of schlock on this vast, forbidding record, not one iota of corniness. Rather than playacting darkness, the Haxan Cloak embodies it. Skipping past Hollywood horror, he plunges into an emotion akin to Kant’s idea of the sublime, where pleasure mixes with fear when confronted with forces limitless and unfathomable.
Krlic recorded his debut album at home over the course of three years; unlike many of his peers, who sample with abandon, he played virtually all of its acoustic instruments himself, save a few bits of chorus. Excavation sounds more “electronic,” but it rests on an entirely acoustic sound palette of instruments from the classical-music studios of the Britten-Pears Foundation, as well as field recordings of his own making, all of it stretched and mangled into pliant, elastic sheets of tone and texture. “They’ve got loads of orchestral drums and tympani and gongs,” Krlic told SPIN of Britten-Pears, “so I was just like a kid in a sweet shop for a few days. With the last record, it was very much primal instruments, all acoustic, quite bound to the earth. With this one, I wanted to deconstruct those elements and make it more ethereal. Get field recordings and just crush them — really get the magnifying glass in and break them down and go really textural, like Impressionist painting.”
Excavation picks up where Haxan Cloak’s self-titled debut album from 2009 left off. Literally, in fact — it begins with the same scraped string note that closes the final track on his first album, so that if you play both records back to back, the transition between the two is absolutely seamless. There’s a narrative intention there: Krlic says that as he finished his debut album, he began to devise a story around a character who “was dying, basically. The end of the record is like a requiem for this person. The new record takes off at the exact point where the last one finished, so if you put them both together you wouldn’t even hear a gap. The new record is just the next step in this character’s journey, basically. It’s not as simple as just saying it’s either heaven or hell, or limbo; it’s a different plane for this person to exist on.”
You don’t need to know any of that to enjoy Excavation. Indeed, one of its great pleasures — although “enjoyment” and “pleasure” are strange words to use for a record like this — is its creation of a world that feels total, self-contained, and viscerally overwhelming. “Consumed” opens the album with a rumbling drone beneath a hazy, wordless choral passage. Out of the murk, a viscous string glissando rises and then explodes into cascading bass tones pitched somewhere on the scale between “La Brea” and “black hole.” Dubstep artists should probably just give up now, because really, how much lower could bass possibly go? (If this were Spinal Tap, the answer would be, “None more low.”) In just under two minutes, Krlic manages to compress Sunn O))) and Gatekeeper’s Exo into a force like a cosmic piledriver capable of cracking the planet itself in half.
It’s not all so full-on, though. For long stretches, you strain to hear anything at all. To get the most out of those quiet passages, where waveforms crackle like static electricity in an anechoic chamber, the album needs to be heard loud, very loud — which, of course, only makes the periodic eruptions of bass and percussion that much louder. Excavation proceeds less like a musical work than a series of dream fragments: Pensive tri-tone drones, rustling sub-rhythms, animalistic yowls, short-circuit sizzle, rattling sheets of metal, heavy-lidded pedal tones, cricket chatter, hiccupping EVP phonemes, church bells, and moments of aching silence, all spun together according to a logic that feels intuitive, pre-linguistic, sub-subconscious.
Along the way, there are echoes of Krlic’s predecessors and peers: “Excavation (Part 1)” carries a hint of Demdike Stare’s slow-motion techno; “Dieu” sounds like Autechre scored for a punch-card machine. The watery pings of Daphne Oram and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop scuttle throughout the album like blood cells under a microscope, and periodic amphibian grumbles bring to mind Merzbow’s Frog. The album’s final track, “The Drop,” is part Seefeel and part John Carpenter. But whereas Krlic’s hauntological peers tend to be obsessed with musical history and techno-nostalgia, misremembering the garbled VHS tapes of their youth in powerfully associative bleeps and groans, Excavation is less concerned with reference than pure, immediate presence. That sensation is heightened by the startling lack of reverb: Instead of settling into the comfortable familiarity of spooky atmospherics, his scrapes and clangs take place against a backdrop of dry, dead nothingness.
Ultimately, what makes Excavation such an awesome and absorbing listen is precisely its indifference to the listener. There are no half-measures, no fallbacks, no guideposts. To properly experience the album, you not only need to turn up the volume to a level that will enrage your neighbors; you need to shut the windows to keep the street noise from drowning out the nothingness. Whatever plane of existence Krlic’s character has stumbled upon in this second part of his ongoing narrative, it operates by its own rules. As long as Excavation is playing, this is the Haxan Cloak’s world, and we just cower in it.