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A Complex, Primal Embroidery of Sound – “Portal/Well” by Insect Ark

Insect Ark
Portal / Well
Autumnsongs Records

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Music is an architecture, yes, but at its more primal it’s a landscape, fired by elements as if forged in the kilns of restless gods, sparked by a fierce eminence of spirit. As much as we all derive a pleasure and entertainment from the many threads and genres we immerse ourselves in daily, and in fact not a little genuine intellectual reward, our deepest gratification is rooted in the elemental. Wordless, profoundly shadowed, flooded with something of a primordial level of emotion, Insect Ark, it would seem, doesn’t merely understand this down to the throbbing center of its heart but more to the point would appear to simply live within it.

The propounding effort of former Angels of Light bassist and Bee and Flower founder Dana Schechter, Insect Ark has been building a presence since 2011, their massive, enshrouding sound being honed via relentless touring and a nearly obsessive need to keep writing. I say ‘their’ but until recently with the addition of drummer and electronics wizard Ashley Spungin (Taurus), who arrived post-recording, the band was none but Schechter, searching, as it were, for the central, elusive universal chord. On Portal/Well, the Ark’s debut just issued last month on Autumnsongs, diving ever deeper the more one gets into it, she has come intriguingly close to finding it. It’s no surprise, upon reflection, that the album’s cover depicts a stretching-to-the-horizon diorama inside an egg, eternity disappearing/returning inside one of life’s most basic forms.

insect ark pic

A complex embroidery of sound that’s sometimes thunderously grandiose, most times a kind of brutally delicate and at all times edge-of-your-seat riveting, it’s generally given the tag ‘experimental doom’ – not least by Schechter herself – which is wholly understandable and not inaccurate but to these ears misses the joy of existence inherent in these tracks. A dark joy, perhaps, but there’s never any question that this is a musician in the midst of her own boundless, bounteous element here, limitlessly alive with composition. Put simply, the pure joy of creation seeps out of every groove regardless of how ‘doomy’ they may appear.

From the rich pounding maelstrom of the opening title track wherein an almost soporific pace is subsumed by layer upon sub-layer of operatic sludge that never in the least feels sludgy but instead moves with a nimble grace, guitars in looming luminescence, bass at plunging depth, melismatic washes of feedback hovering over everything, to the ponderous infinitude of “Low Moon” that closes out proceedings in a state of questing cinemascopic tranciness, Portal/Well is a (darkly) glowing, transportive document of what’s possible.

“The Collector,” with its ominous scritchings overhead, dramatic casings of an electronic presence prowling the atmosphere, rather lives under your skin, nervously unsettling in a way you can’t get enough of. “Octavia,” its beat the footfalls of colossi and the album’s lengthiest track at eight and a half minutes, offers a mesmerizing panorama of glacially epic proportions, shadows crossing spikes in an oddly bewitching soundscape that seems to invite astral travel, while the massive “Taalith” evinces either the heaviest goth gloom ever or is actually speaking in the musical language of tectonic plates, enormous slabs of gneiss and granite discussing Wagner. Then, just when you thought things couldn’t plumb depths any further beyond comes “Parallel Twin,” possibly Portal/Well‘s most textured offering that, due the slightly more sprightly pace it eventually reaches and a synth line one might mistake for an ancient Nordic horn reanimated by grey magic and electricity, also presents the greatest feel of openness on the record, which somehow only makes it all the more haunting, that hint of slashing light and expansiveness, by this point, almost a bit disorienting.

Blessed, then, by a transfixing dichotomy where every traced descent – into hell, into shadowed valleys of death, into a splendid madness – in truth arises, emerging from your headphones or your (hopefully) glorious speakers swathed in a promethean grandeur, Portal/Well has to count as one of 2015’s most impressive debuts and it really doesn’t matter what else comes down the pike in the remaining six months. For a year that has yet to beget a new Swans release we’re nonetheless quite fortunate, Insect Ark has arrived and our mortal souls are saved.

[picture courtesy Insect Ark bandcamp page]