You can often tell the character of an album initially by looking at the names of its tracks. ‘1000 Opera Singers In Starbucks’, ‘Sin Is Crouching At Your Door’, ‘Peculiar Form Of Sleep’, ‘Tell ‘Em Makoto!’ and ‘Punxsutawney Phil’ are just some of the unique and intriguing yet puzzling song titles on Wovoka Gentle’s audaciously bold debut record Start Clanging Cymbals. Those song names aptly prepare listeners for the unorthodox and wild content that’s inside.
The London group’s first record contains surreal, literary and historically inspired lyrics that encourage subjective interpretation about dreaming and prophecy. It’s a constantly surprising form of psychedelic art-folk aided by a range of field-recorded samples taped in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, the quirky experimental-pop compositions of Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, moments of free jazz (hear the Stealing Sheep Bowie’s Blackstar combo ‘Punxsutawney Phil’) and a spiritual flavour that makes it easy to imagine them performing at a bohemian cult festival. A great example of this blend is the latest single ‘Tell Em’ Makoto’ which begins as the kind of Irish folk song heard aboard Titanic, but transforms into a James Blake-meets-Villagers production as it studies cultural embracement from the book Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura.
Start Clanging Cymbals is bookended by radio station jingles: “Good news, good news, good news” and “happy new year”, but it’s clear from early on that this is adventurous music that is unlikely to be aired on many DAB radio stations besides 6 Music or Radio X in the late evening. ‘Salient Point’ introduces us nicely to Wovoka Gentle’s synchronised triad harmonies, which flow over ambiguous factory noise and bursts of industrial ethereal electronica in the styling of Venezuelan producer Arca. The track appears to paraphrase a biblical excerpt from Corinthians (13:1) : “I’m a clanging cymbal / Tongues of angels can fathom knowledge.” Yet the historical and mythological references on Start Clanging Cymbals are less about showing off how university educated Wovoka Gentle appear to be, it’s a writing technique to help bring listeners into their picture collage world, a world that slides back and forth between realism and a dream-like state.
On the gorgeous and magical piano-track ‘Gennesaret’ (called the paradise of Galilee in the bible) they sing about being a contemporary trend-following person in London: “I’m a real-life Modern man. With my goals and a hybrid car and a watch that measures my heart rate/On the city grind I’ll keep it buried as I barge onto the District line.” Yet there are moments where the protagonist daydreams that they are sometimes “a ﬁsherman with a net down week on week” or “in the desert place I keep a rattlesnake to keep away the rattlesnake.” Are these dreams or are they confused by which reality of theirs is true?
They are just as confused on the bouncy chip-tune frenzy ‘Tiresias Theban (Peculiar Form Of Sleep)’. Citing a blind prophet in Greek mythology who had powers of clairvoyance and a poem by E.E.Cummings (note that their band name Wovoka Gentle is also a portmanteau borrowed from different poems), it’s a philosophical study about the weird experience when you’re not sure if you are awake or sleep. “I’m feeling kind of messy, I think I need a nap. Another wretched cycle. Confusion in a snap. / How is dreaming anything different to waking up.” The misleadingly upbeat experimental pop song ‘1,000 Opera Singers Working In Starbucks’ – which was inspired musically by kids TV themes – takes things further by imagining a person crying for help but stuck within a nightmare. The disorientated nature of the composition and the lyrics: “Listen to my words. Consider my lament. Save me from these nightmares. I don’t think I can do it now,” really reflect this oneiric predicament well.
Wovoka Gentle’s debut LP features three interludes, two don’t really contribute to the album significantly (‘It’s All OK’ and ‘Josh, Shout Something!’) and could have been left out entirely, but ‘I Saw A Bright Light’ significantly adds weight to the hypnagogic and spiritual nature of the record. It’s a sample of an American narrator talking over hypnotic sounds about white lights as ”guardian angels” and reflective energy, sounding as if it’s been recorded from a mystical wisdom Television channel. It could have easily featured Lord Huron’s occult parody record ‘Vide Noir’.
One of the most enjoyable tracks on Start Clanging Cymbals is ‘Xerxes 19’. A cross-continental track, that could have be named after the king of Persia in fifth century BC, pairs glitchy electronics with high-spirited child voices of Kids Club Kampala Choir in Uganda. It sounds joyful but the lyrics are about a person’s choice to die to preserve dignity into a world run by tyranic leaders. For an album that sways between reality and fantasy its hard to know if this song’s rather depressing detail is metaphorical or not, but the title of the album Start Clanging Cymbals suggests that a loud wake up call is needed in all our lives.
Start Clanging Cymbals is out now on Nude Records.