Wed, Jun 19

Drew McDowall (Coil)

Green-House, Cruel Diagonals,

Drew McDowall (Coil)
Cruel Diagonals

Drew McDowall

Scottish experimental/electronic musicianDrew McDowall’s lifelong interest in an elegiac solobagpipe style called pibroch (ceòl mòrin Gaelic) has been an inspiration for much of his previous work (including Coil’s legendary Time Machines). This form, often traditionally used for laments and for tributes to the dead, fuses modal drones with flickering dissonance and plaintive melody evoking an ancient, solemn mood.

His latest work,A Thread, Silvered and Trembling, both incorporates and transforms these elements via exploratory electronic processing, weaving an electro-acoustic tapestry of strings, shudders, voids, and voices, alternately disembodied and displaced. Co-produced with engineer Randall Dunn at Circular Ruin Studios in Brooklyn, the collection’s four pieces capture McDowall at his most elevated and elusive, in thrall to “the ineffable–that which refuses to bespoken.”

McDowall’s palette here is unusually eclectic, sourced from a dynamic orchestral ensemble arranged byBrent Arnold and comprised of cello, viola, violin, harp (Marilu Donovan ofLEYA),and french horn. Ebbing between shrouded electronics and enigmatic, sometimes spectralist orchestration, the album moves with a seething, simmering energy, surging into elegant, uneasy crescendos. The first two pieces are inspired by a liberatory hijacking and in version of a grim biblical story (and by a cryptic and strange UK simple syrup branding).Opener “Out ofStrength Comes Sweetness” shivers with short echo and resonant pads, before shifting into the album’s centerpiece: the 14-minute saga “And Lions Will Sing with Joy.” A murmuring electrical storm of keening strings and disorienting drones gradually grows darker and denser, until suddenly there’s a crack in the clouds, revealing mutated choral voices and sparkling harp. McDowall describes the track as “an incantation to help usher in a break, and anew beginning.”

The record’s latter half evokes a deep untamed animism shot through with spiraling radiance. “InWound and Water” sways with harp, plucked strings and eerie cello undertows while lush layers of disorientated electronics hang in the dusk. There is no resolution, only a faint gradient of fragile dissipation, leading into the album’s harrowing and climactic closer, “A Dream of aCartographic Membrane Dissolves.” Processed voices (credited on the liner notes to “The GhostsWho Refuse to Rest”) contort, whisper, and gather as the rest of the ensemble sharpens, poising to strike. Then it does–grand, tragic stabs of strings and horns lashing the sky, storming heaven by force.

The fallout is poetic and inevitable, raining embers into a dark sea. But the journey and catharsis of A Thread linger long after it goes silent. Like so much of McDowall’s multifaceted catalog, this is music of immanence and alchemy, attuned equally to the sacred and the profane, to the tile and the mosaic.


Cruel Diagonals

Since 2016, Los Angeles-based multimedia artist, Cruel Diagonals (aka Megan Mitchell), has been creating critically acclaimed experimental electronic music and intriguing visuals. Though classically trained as a vocalist and well-versed in jazz standards as a youth, Cruel Diagonals applies her brilliant voice to compositions and improvisations that are the antithesis of staid tradition or arid academic exercises. Rather, she optimizes her minimal gear setup with an instinctual adventurousness and an acute sense of the most chilling and moving atmospheres and timbres, favoring fluidity of tones over the grid-like modes of much electronic music. Cruel Diagonals augments these elements with exquisite vocalizations and field recording extracted from decrepit industrial sites and West Coast nature zones in order to reveal their expressive properties, thereby forging a unique sonic palette. 

These skills first manifested on her 2018 debut album, Disambiguation (Drawing Room), which earned rave reviews in The Wire, Pitchfork, NPR, and other publications. Cruel Diagonals’ sublime live performances include her own abstract visuals that act as an “interwoven, continuous narrative” to her music. You can sense geometry and geology intersecting, the organic and the inorganic melding. These mesmerizing, riveting shows led to Cruel Diagonals playing festivals such as Desert Daze and MUTEK.SF. She has additionally completed a solo tour in Europe and tours in the United States. 

Cruel Diagonals has gone on to record for respected labels Beacon Sound, Longform Editions, and Doom Trip while taking her sound into deeper strata of textural complexity and vocal dexterity. Marked by a grave ethereality, releases such as Pulse Of Indignation (2018), Monolithic Nuance (2018), A Dormant Vigor (2021), and Fractured Whole (2023) feature beautiful singing amid discordant, sinister electronics. In these stark contrasts, you can hear an artist fighting to transcend psychic and physical trauma, finessing a path to inner peace. Making the ineffable deeply intimate, Cruel Diagonals is a surrealist sound sorcerer who is just beginning to journey through labyrinths of her own enigmatic design.