Drift Into Walker’s Blocks of Sound

Drift Into Walkers Blocks of Sound

The great artist Scott Walker hunches forward in his chair, the bill of his plain black baseball cap pulled down across his face so that it shrouds his eyes totally. The percussionist on the other side of the soundproof glass steps toward the microphone and the click track starts in on his headphones. Walker leans in a bit more, as the conductor — a pale, bearded man in an unforgiving teal turtleneck — bounces his baton in time to the hypnotic 4/4 ticking. The percussionist clenches his fists. A second “and four” and the conductor raises his bushy brows at the percussionist, signaling him. Now, a flick of the baton and the familiar sound of flesh on flesh as the percussionist throws sporadic sixteenth-note punches at what appears to be the ribs and midsection of a freshly slaughtered cow.

Not a minute into the take and it’s all wrong for Walker.

“Stop it,” he says mildly to the sound technician, and playback is promptly cut. Walker proceeds to explain to the percussionist, in detail, the lyrical art of the barefisted meat whack.

For as many forms of art that offer lucrative avenues for terror-induced catharsis, music seems to be a strange exception. Strange primarily due to its unmatched potential to evoke wild, hallucinatory images for listeners based almost entirely on their own subconscious and memory. Walker, however, is undoubtedly an exception to this exception. And what better time of the year than Halloween to dive head first into the most frightening lower chambers of a master artist’s nightmare-stained psyche?

If Walker’s string of eponymous albums, “Scott 1–4,” are more effortlessly cool and suavely operatic than anything else released in the 1960s (and you’d best believe they are), his 2006 colossus “The Drift” is bleaker and more monolithic than what any modern death metal or doom metal pyrotechnics have to offer. Walker is a master lyricist, and on “The Drift,” his unrelenting poetry is always at the unsettling center of the mix. He croons and whispers wild descriptions of Elvis’s stillborn twin brother or the execution of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci — their limp bodies dangling in the nighttime air. But with Walker it’s always a puzzle, and these frightening stories are always steeped heavily in abstraction. The latter account on 12-minute gothic opus “Clara” is a modest example:

“This is not a cornhusk doll / Dipped in blood in the moonlight / Like what happen in America.”

The instrumentation, which Walker has referred to as “blocks of sound” rather than traditional stacked arrangement, also follows a dream logic. “The Drift” falls somewhere between musique concrete haunted house and surreal book on tape, and aside from the aforementioned meat-punching, Walker employs large string and brass ensembles, Asian wind instruments and electronically manipulated sound. But rarely do his soundscapes ever match the familiar and sweeping orchestral numbers of his ‘60s masterpieces. Here, those classical conceptions of songwriting are abandoned almost entirely, and we are left with the stripped-down and blackened core of a troubled artist nearing the end of his prolific life.

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