Taking their name from Kafka‘s The Trial, Brighton’s Dog In The Snow are all about unfettered creativity and boundless potential, in spite of oppression. Kafka, notoriously eremite, would write for hours by night and sleep by day, haunted by the philosophical and esoteric spectres of his dreams which he attempted to exorcise through his work. Picking up from where 2017’s Consume Me left off, Helen Ganya Brown’s second album and debut for Bella Union, Vanishing Lands, similarly evokes those same existential pains with its immediate and chilling commentary on the state of the world.
First things first. Engaging this album on its own terms is essential. Despite its accessible niche of operatic electronica, art-rock and new wave, like Jenny Hval‘s brilliant Practice of Love this is not any old consumable pop record. In the upside-down world that Brown observes on Vanishing Lands, our waking moments are nightmarish, all light is fading and there is no escape. This intense, intricate construction is, on one hand, rather fragile due to the vulnerable beauty in Brown’s voice and lyrics while creating, on the other, an unstinting, insurmountable sense of dread. The horror of Vanishing Lands perhaps comes mostly from the huge black mirror it holds up to us all, bringing us closer than we might want to be to our collective responsibility for the way things are. To paraphrase quantum physicist John Wheeler, ‘there is no out there, out there’ and, despite its other-worldliness, the reality described by Vanishing Lands is not a dream. No one is going to wake us up.
Brown write eight of the ten songs over the three-week period she was visited by vivid, monochrome dreams about a world collapsing in on itself. Working with the raw, subjective intangibility of dreams and conveying their nebulous meanings is the skill of poets and Brown makes it seem not only effortless, but essential. From the pulsing waves of ‘Light’ that beckons us into coffin-strewn barren landscapes, the razor-edged, spiraling descent into chaos of ‘Dual Terror’, or the sterile, numbing dysphoria of ‘Icaria’ (named for a failed 19th Century utopian experiment) Brown leaves no obscure psychic corner unchartered. The imagery invoked is surreal, grim and immersive and, as illustrated in the accompanying videos below, there are shades of Tarkovsky, Buñuel and Bergman in these apocalyptic visions and soundscapes.
Even the album’s gentler moods are psychedelic rabbit holes, reaching into areas of the mind that are reserved for dreams. ‘This Only City’ takes us on a never-ending stroll across great flat planes, cello sweeps and distant brass swells echoing in all directions into the mist shrouded horizon. ‘Roses’ has a similar sense of displacement, “oh this land not mine, it can’t be” sings Brown, referring to the real and metaphorical borders that divide us from each other and the defense of which gives rise to hatred. Brown’s own experience of seeking a sense of identity, having a Thai mother and Scottish father, growing up in Singapore and UK, was explored in Consume Me. Here its applied more broadly to people, fractured and struggling against the predominance of one culture or way of thinking. Oppression of the individual by political systems is echoed in the hooded black figures in the video for ‘Roses’, inspired by a photo of refugees at sea, their faces hidden, desperate to escape ruined homelands.
What happens when it’s not only your homeland that lies in ruin, but everywhere else around it? Where do you escape to? The climate change marching rally cry of ‘Fall Empire’ opens with lines from a Hopi prophecy used as a choral piece in the documentary film Koyaanisqatsi: “If we dig precious things from the land we will invite disaster”. The rest of the prophecy, (unused here but scarily relevant) translates as “near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky. A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.” Closing track ‘Dark’ provides a gentle anthemic uplift, although its message is consistent with the rest of the album: “visions keep burning down, dark, dark, dark”. Endings are inevitable and some are violent. With their almost religious tones, the solemn and abrupt chants at the end of ‘Dark’ sees Brown grimly scattering the ashes of the old world over the faint hopes of a new one.
To sum up, however grave this album may be Dog In The Snow is far from despairing in their world-view. Whether we’re guided by prophesies, dreams or even quantum physics everything is connected and there is always deeper knowledge available to us. For all its eerie detachment, there’s a persistent humanity to Vanishing Lands that calls out our inaction and hints at solutions to the wickedest problems. If only we’re prepared to work for them.
‘Vanishing Lands’ is released on 15th November, via Bella Union.
Main photo credit Jay Bartlett.