Incommensurate Elements: Void’s Dreams of a Painted World
Let’s spill some ink over the “inky blackness” of our “memories of other worlds.”
Dreams of a Painted World, released by the solo project Void at the beginning of 2021, is a palette of different styles brushed and smeared together. Black metal, post-rock, ambient, and funeral doom sometimes coalesce and other times diverge but never feel haphazardly enjoined. I have spent more time with this record than many others over the last three weeks, always a bit unsure of what keeps drawing me back for another listen. Yet Dreams of a Painted World is not a befuddling modernist masterpiece that splits viewers into two disparate intellectual camps of either “I understand it!” or “I don’t understand it!” Rather, Dreams of a Painted World is akin to a Rothko; squares and rectangles of solid colours dissolving into one another at their boundaries might arrest you and hold you enrapt in the feelings it draws from you in an almost unmediated way. Or, like a Rothko, it might leave you unmoved.
I’m thinking of Rothko because Void seems to compose its songs in a similar fashion. Recognizable, understandable spans of black metal abruptly stop before a post-rock passage begins. Other times, the two sounds are as indistinguishable as the borders between Rothko’s yellows and oranges where you can no longer tell where one colour begins and the other ends. Dreams of a Painted World also calls to mind Jana Larson’s recently published Reel Bay. Subtitled “a cinematic essay,” Larson’s book is fiction, non-fiction, and autobiography; it is about a film Larson had not yet made and then finally made but still remains unmade in the book; it is a true story in the sense that Fargo, a film that sits at the book’s center, is a true story. It is also a far truer story than Fargo while still very much being a collage of truth, invention, imagination, and reality. Textually, it frequently breaks between normal typeset paragraphs and film script. These changes often happen seemingly at random, without a sense of the difference between the film script being re-written, the facts of the case surrounding Takako Konishi’s mysterious death, and Larson’s lightly fictionalized memoir. Really, like that magical space in a Rothko, there is no telling the difference.
In the album opener “Crossing the Mist,” we can hear this similar sense of sameness and difference. A gust of wind swirling on a lonely beach is raucously interrupted by a spastic drum roll and a blasting, energized black metal riff replete with ominous, foreboding synths. The blast beat drops into a mid-paced and clink-laced stomp. The blast beats and stomping rhythms alternate as do the song’s two main riffs, creating a counterpoised or contrapuntal effect. The tone is reminiscent of Deafheaven or other more emotive contemporary black metal acts.
The wind returns and a soft, warm synth glows over it before Thom Yorke-ian keys bring together in choir the organic and inorganic, the natural and synthetic. It is a deeply mournful passage, and, by the end of it, the synths have given way to sighing strings and a lonesome thud of a kick-drum. The sound emerges of someone trudging through the crunchy sand and breaking through the brittle reeds of dunes. It is Gaganendranath Tagore’s “Moon Above the Sea,” the cover of the album, in sonic form.
The moon falls out of the sky and we find ourselves in the blackness of the song’s opening minutes. Aside from a novel gurgle of a loosely strung bass, the final chaotic minute of “Crossing the Mist” is a near full return to the song’s beginning. It is hard, however, to say that a circle has been drawn. It feels almost entirely unexpected that we would end up where we began, even if we understand the structural logic behind this return. I am unwilling to say it is a songwriting failure, as I am not convinced the disjointedness of the song is not precisely the point. If indeed we have crossed the mist—traveled through it—what was the mist but a brief band of water globules suspended in the atmosphere that merely interrupts a much larger, more encompassing space of sameness and repetition? In a sense, the song resists the very notion that “crossing the mist” is a linear movement. It might just simply obstruct, for a brief moment, the chaos that lies on both sides of its cool, particulated calm.
Another hard break separates “Crossing the Mist” from “Ascending the Mountain of Madness.” The second track on Dreams of a Painted World begins with the pleasant piano keys of a quasi-neoclassical ambient soundscape. Synths and cymbals carefully, almost sheepishly, join the piano, as a disembodied voice beckons us into a post-rock haze. If there are lyrics, they are unintelligible, as it is more the affective register of the wail that is important than its meaning or content. Some lovely acoustic strings help build a mild crescendo of action before the song drops back into its lonely piano refrain. We might think of the atmospheric ambient interlude of “Crossing the Mist” as some sort of prelude to this track. Listeners hungry for more of the opener’s black metal energy will possibly feel enervated by this dreary, misty-eyed rendition of Mono, Mogwai, or God is an Astronaut, but I find the track utterly enchanting. A familiar tendency towards tremolo riffs now marks the track’s orchestral post-rock swell. If “Crossing the Mist” felt disconnected, breakneck, or even jumbled, “Ascending the Mountain of Madness” is an expertly crafted song with narrative crests and troughs. The track ends in a lush washing away of its own footprints, the tides of the sea creeping into the divots made in the sand by the wanderer’s calloused heels. Is this track an ascension? Are we on our way to madness? It is the furthest thing from my mind.
Even “Through Tooth and Nail,” Void’s final foray into black metal, does not feel mad. The track begins with a low, dark, haunted atmosphere before a black metal storm punctures the calm. The riff seems digitized, somewhere between synth and guitar. “Through Tooth and Nail” feels like an attempt at dungeon black metal, as the synth and guitar never quite settle into one another. By the end of the track’s third minute, an effusive riff emerges before the track drops off into something resembling doom. You can hear connections to “Crossing the Mist” and “Ascending the Mountain of Madness,” even if you can’t quite place them. It’s a shrouded coherence, mystifying and grainy but ever-present. Some inventive, groovy drum programming lifts the spirt of the song’s middle moments before it returns to its black metal roots. In a sense, “Through Tooth and Nail” mirrors “Crossing the Mist”: a constant switchback between post-rock and black metal with ambient flourishes that sometimes meld together and sometimes resist each other. Critically, it is not lacking in arresting or affecting moments, tones, or moods. I find myself returning over and over to this record because it seems to capture something about the inability to hold onto any one mood or moment in a gratifying or sustained way. If the album has a thesis, it is that any emotional state is transient. It might return, yes, but it will not last forever. The feeling might not last as long as we hope it to, but it also might not last as long as we dread it will.
The album’s final track “Death Knell” begins with a mournful funeral doom dirge without any of the expected heaviness. It is all affect, sentimentality, and feeling. Soft violin strings weft through doleful piano notes, sewing together the sound of an infinite emptiness that is the project’s namesake. Near the 4-minute mark, mountainous, oceanic guitars finally arrive, a relief in homage to groups like Slow or Drown. These give way to ringing, undulating drone riffs that remind one of the earliest Earth records.
It does not last. Very little does in this painted world. But, of a sudden, it is all back, this time with the lonely drums of the song’s beginning, embellished with the same synths that… and again:
A faintly metallic wind appears that is only enough to annotate this space as containing nothing at all. The piano returns in all its anguish and beauty. One could listen to it forever. Of course, just as you are willing to submit to such a fate, we are met again with a Bell Witch’s moaning heaviness. Perhaps there is nothing unique about “Death Knell.” Maybe it is merely an imitative piece of atmospheric funeral doom. Even so, it is evocative. But its placement in relation to the rest of the album makes it feel different.
There is a complication of relations on Dreams of a Painted World: the convoluted mess of consciousness. To tease out this thread, we might reach past contemporary non-fiction and modernist painters to the Victorian novel. In his landmark The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968), the recently deceased literary critic J. Hillis Miller argues, “In Victorian novels, for the most part, the characters are aware of themselves in terms of their relations to others” (emphasis mine). The Enlightenment’s cogito ergo sum is dead. In its place is a character who might say, “’I am conscious of myself as conscious of others’” (5). Similarly, Dreams of a Painted World’s sense of self—its aesthetic project—is one of relation and what we could call “a pattern of incommensurate elements” (Miller 34). It is an album insofar as it is fully aware of its disparate parts and the seeming messiness of them.
It is no small risk drawing into relation these different influences, sounds, structures, ideas, riffs, moods, feelings. Some listeners will understandably balk at its unevenness. Perhaps, though, I am drawn to this album because my own thinking is not as preciously devoted, associative, or logical as I hope it to be right now; rather, it is dispersed, dissociative, jumpy, bogged down, in a morass, fleeting, ever changing, never different. In some sense, Dreams of a Painted World is a recognition that a painted world, a world that tells a true, whole story like Tangore’s “Moon Above the Sea,” is but a dream, is a compositionally logical and coherent world that can only be found on canvas. It is a dream, a wish, a hope, a demand, a cry for something that can be expressed but cannot be implemented as our world.
So, what does it mean to be Void, to be a void, in our world? “To define man as a lack, as a hunger for fulfilment, is to define him as will, as a spontaneous energy of volition which reaches out in longing to substantiate itself by the assimilation of something outside itself” (Miller 32-33). When God, like Descartes, “vanishes, man turns to interpersonal relations as the only remaining arena of the search for authentic selfhood” (33). But what happens when interpersonal relations vanish amidst our digitized, over-networked, under-connected world? To what does that energy of volition, that will, that lack, turn? It turns into or perhaps even in on itself. It is then an endless volition, will, or lack with no arena for authentication or realizable selfhood. It is a constant state of agitated selflessness. It is Void.