The Storyteller Borrows His Authority from Death: Premiering Isolation Diary from Mother Anxiety and S H R I E K I N G
Listen to these harrowing stories from the Pacific Northwest.
I was so convinced that, during COVID, I would keep my own isolation diary, that I would finally adopt the simple practice of recording my day, jotting down stray thoughts, transcribing quotes, and taking down half-remembered dreams. My notebook sits bedside, maybe a quarter full of mostly illegible lists of things I did or felt in a day and entirely devoid of anything interesting or really thoughtful. When I do pick it up on some evening after dinner, I hunch over it in bed and scribble down some list of things. Often, when looking back over any particular entry, I wonder if I have any dexterity left that isn’t simply typing or texting. My penmanship was always a bastardized mix of script and print that could sometimes flow so effortlessly and others staggered and jutted horrifyingly across the page. I was never really that good at guitar, either. This all seems inevitable.
That is more or less a diary entry, a fitting introduction to Isolation Diary, the upcoming split from Mother Anxiety and S H R I E K I N G. Isolation Diary is a dreadful split in that it fearfully, reverentially, straddles the boundary between manageable discomfort and outright neurasthenia. It is an awe-inspiring panic attack: an exhausted reverie to chest pain, blurred vision, confusion, quickened breath, and the assurance that there is no escaping this particular moment of unnamable and enveloping horror. Here we are, overloaded and sputtering to our twitchy, glitchy end.
The first half of the split belongs to Mother Anxiety, the experimental electronic project helmed by author, musician, and Toilet ov Hell contributor Ben Serna-Grey. The entries, jumbled as they are, combine spoken word, classical, ambient, and noise into a form of techno-realist pastiche that emulates our poorly stitched-together and digitized lives. Each entry’s atmosphere expands forebodingly, though sometimes calmly, only to be interrupted by pulsive wavelengths, aggravated patterns, and dissociative neuroses. The effect of the spoken word passage in “Entry 1” is transfixing, as freighted words blip in and out of the track’s consciousness. As on “Entry 3,” this gives way to something far more sinister and obtrusive as the words are repressed into unintelligible forms. You’re still dying, you fear, but the feedback loop is scrambled and you’re more perplexed than frightened.
I can’t separate Isolation Diary from Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine, his 2020 book about the social industry. One passage, in particular, keeps coming back to me while I pore through Mother Anxiety’s side of the split. On the final page of the chapter “We Are All Liars,” which sits verso to the recto title page of the sixth chapter “We Are All Dying,” Seymour writes, “The problem is not the lies. It is information reduced to brute fact, to technologies with unprecedented and unforeseen powers of physical manipulation by means of information bombardment. We naively think of ourselves as either ‘information rich’ or ‘information poor’. What if it doesn’t work that way? What if information is like sugar, and a high-information diet is a benchmark of cultural poverty? What if information, beyond a certain point, is toxic?”
Isolation Diary, for all its moments of itchy discomfort, is a perfect accompaniment to Seymour’s panic-inducing diagnosis of the social industry world. One reason I am drawn to ambient and noise projects is that there does feel to be less an insistence on the transmission of information between artist and listener. While I, like so many, see ambient music as the perfect backdrop to information-rich activities such as reading, it is also, particularly its noisier, more disruptive, and more jarring forms, ill-suited for the obsessive uptake of information. You simply cannot do much more than submerge yourself into the depths of despair blaring out at you and swallowing you up like an icy lake. The limp frigidity of letting go sounds like “Entry 2,” as it slides along almost unnoticed for over 7 minutes before a jazzy piano breaks onto the scene almost as if the latest copy of The New Yorker fluttered down and landed outside your windowsill on a cool spring morning. A brief moment of blissful letting go.
“Entry 4,” though, is the harsh noise explosion to which Mother Anxiety has been building. The spoken word moments of “Entry 1” are now self-reproaching rants and throat-scarring screams layered over warning sirens and blistering static. There’s no information here, only unmediated fear and fury. It is the belching up of all the toxicity of our hard-wired and atomized existences split between Zoom screens, phone scrolls, headline deluges, and online culture wars gleefully engineered to make Jack Dorsey all the wealthier. “We should begin to take seriously,” writes Seymour, “the possibility that something about the social industry is either incipiently fascistic, or particularly conducive to incipient fascism.” This is Mother Anxiety taking those possibilities not only seriously but as probabilities. The final moments of “Entry 4” nod off into a darker jazz-lounge crawl and increasingly incoherent poem. The aperture is shutting, and you feel it to be a true relief, even if it is a terrible one, to have any final meaning thrown into the furnace and turned into a choking, hacking smoke that envelops your charred fingers snapping off-beat.
In “The Storyteller” (“Die Erzähler”), Walter Benjamin writes, “On the other hand, we recognize that with the full control of the middle class, which has the press as one of its most important instruments in fully developed capitalism, there emerges a form of communication which, no matter how far back its origin may lie, never before influenced the epic form in a decisive way. But now it does exert such an influence. And it turns out that it confronts storytelling as no less of a stranger than did the novel, but in a more menacing way, and that it also brings about a crisis in the novel. This new form of communication is information.” Written in 1936, 4four years before Benjamin intentionally overdosed on morphine while on the run from the Gestapo, “The Storyteller,” wafts over us like wisps of smoke from heaven in order to tell us, “If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs.” There is no story, no storyteller, no listener; just microbes of information that we once called lives transacted across privately-owned networks.
S H R I E K I N G’s “Smoke from Heaven,” the preview track from their side of the Isolation Diary split is just such an attempt at reconfiguring life into a novel relation between peopled connected through stories. It sounds like William Basinski corrupting Polmo Polpo’s dear little debut Like Hearts Swelling into a meditative drone set on a soot-blanketed beach at the end of the world. It loops along the sweetness of a piano while distressed sounds of a world crumbling down hum around it. There is a warm, inviting eternality to “Smoke from Heaven,” even as it intensifies and the drums thunder louder and louder. Benjamin quotes Valéry as conjecturing, “It is almost as if the decline of the idea of eternity coincided with the increasing aversion to sustained effort.” The idea of eternity, continues Benjamin, “has ever had its strongest source of death.” With so many of the blindered and foolish “sages” of our current age looking to “solve” death in Silicon Valley, the desanctification of eternity and death has impeded our ability to, in any meaningful way, narrate our lives to one another, to listen to narration, to sit with life and death’s complexity, difficulty, and irreducibility. S H R I E K I N G seems to agree with Benjamin that “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell.” We are sanctioned and sanctified in the smoke.
“Rapture” and “God of the Machine” follow “Smoke from Heaven” with a subdued and placid foray into the boundless universe and the unbounded unconscious. Something resembling a jangly guitar riff fluctuates peaceably throughout “Rapture,” while “God of the Machine” echoes forth as a diurnal prayer to the forthcoming “Burnt Offering.” S H R I E K I N G’s final track clangs with the delicate furor of Jesu or Greymachine. “Burnt Offering,” as its name suggests, is reverential, staggered with the dread of the sacrificial rites of forgotten storytellers everywhere. Various voices swirl like ghosts in an ecto-plasmodic tornado around the listener, as the track’s thudding industrial vigor explodes into choppy, corrugated black metal. S H R I E K I N G and Isolation Diary come to a fiery conclusion, scorching the listener while bathing them in the cooling smoke of a ritual psalter.
Benjamin concludes the 15th section of “The Storyteller” thusly: “The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” What will draw listeners to Isolation Diary, then, is the crackling pyre of S H R I E K I N G’s amalgam of drone, industrial, and black metal, and Mother Anxiety’s salvific soundtrack of (self-)immolation. Isolation Diary is a blazing fire built on the embers of self-introspection, splinters of loneliness, and the fuel of mourning and frustration. Gather round, huddle close, let its flames lick at your tear-streaked faces. We do not have to pass ourselves off as mere bundles of information; we can sit here and tell stories to one another. We will enrich ourselves with our shared fates and draw from one another the warmth and strength to burn down all that stands in the way of our flourishing. We will write new stories for ourselves and not the algorithm. Take the time to listen.