The endless horizon yawns before me, empty and cold and grey. I fall to my knees before its immensity, sere-ing my soul. Yet still I crawl forward, backward, inward. Even leaden-loaded with no hope we struggle on, for what else is there?
Instrumental psychedelic doom duo Insect Ark have creating uncomfortable sonicscapes that feel both intimate and icy cold since 2011. Nightmarish horror film-like visions, outer space travel, and gritty noir textures – all of this and more have been conjured up in their past records, the much-praised Portal / Well (2015) and Marrow Hymns (2018), but now, something even bigger is coming. Prepare for The Vanishing.
"The album’s title refers to a daydream I had of disappearing completely – floating out to sea alone, never to return, or walking off down a road, and never being found. This idea has recurred throughout my life,” says Dana Schechter, NYC-based multi-instrumentist, known for her collaborations with Swans (for whom she is now part of the main touring line-up), Angels Of Light, Gnaw, Zeal & Ardor, Wrekmeister Harmonies or Årabrot, among others, her own projects Bee and Flower and Gifthorse, and also, naturally, for her current main personal vehicle of expression, Insect Ark. Describing the ideas and feelings behind Insect Ark's new album, The Vanishing, she continues: “On a much bigger level, it's about the impermanence of life itself, trying to retain perspective of how small we really are, invisible in the bigger frame of time and history. We all will face this impermanence, even if we try to hide from it. The endless cycle of birth/death exists for all life forms, yet sometimes we forget we’re not immortal."
As you might have predicted from that emotional setting, The Vanishing is not a work for the faint of heart. Unlike a lot of instrumental music, and even like some of Insect Ark's previous work, it does not really creep on you from the background, and it's so much more than just a piece of ambient music to serve as a companion to other tasks. Though many parts of it veer off into mind-expanding outer realms territories, the interplay between the bass, lap steel guitar, synths and drums is tighter and closer to song format than ever before, and that's essentially what The Vanishing really represents – it is a strong and defiant collection of songs that demand your exclusive attention forcefully, straight from the beginning. Take opener Tectonic as a perfect example – kicking off the album with a rumbling, cavernous bass line, it soon expands into a devastating and gigantic Neurosis-like movement worthy of its title. It's heavier, darker and denser than anything Insect Ark have ever done, yet without losing any of the writing characteristics that have become synonymous with their personality, like the persistent coating of eerie psychedelia, the alien feel of the melodies or the ominous dread they often exhale.
In many ways, this record feels like both an arrival and a departure for the duo. Dana is now joined by former SubRosa drummer Andy Patterson and this partnership appears to have completely nailed the true essence of Insect Ark throughout these six songs, despite the recent nature of the pairing. After parting ways with former drummer Ashley Spungin, Schechter was left with a somewhat uncertain near future – an US tour with Oranssi Pazuzu booked and recording sessions approaching quickly for the new album of which there were still only raw versions of songs. "I didn't have a plan B," Dana recalls of that period a few months ago when she found herself as the only member of Insect Ark again, a scenario that was in fact the way the project started, but given the direction it has taken since then, now requires a special kind of drummer to fully flesh out its potential. "I wasn't going to give the tour or the recording up. I can work with a challenge, but I knew finding the right person was a tall order, and the amount of work that laid ahead was daunting considering the tight schedule." Serendipity then struck, and a mutual friend suggested Patterson, who was himself looking for a new challenge after the end of SubRosa. "Andy was really enthusiastic," Dana says. "I sent him a song, he sent it back with some drum ideas, then he came to NYC for a tryout. I knew he was a great drummer, not only from SubRosa but his other bands DØNE and The Otolith, but I needed to be sure the chemistry was there. The work ethic also had to be there. These were both crucial, because to pull it off, we'd have to pack into a few weeks what would take most bands half a year. I flew to Salt Lake City before tour and we went into overdrive. We practiced seven days a week for three weeks. The songs all were brand new, so it was a full restart for us both." In the end, they emerged with the best possible scenario that could be expected for this new collaboration – a tremendous new album for the present, and a partnership to further explore in the future, both in studio and on stage. "His drumming was excellent as expected, but he also really showed up for all the little pieces," Dana describes excitedly. "Insect Ark has a complex technical setup, and being a duo, there's a lot of detail work happening under the hood that nobody on the outside ever sees or hears. He's got a sense of grace which makes him a real joy to work with. It was super intense but I enjoyed every minute of it, and can't wait to get back on the road together."
The intensity and the dedication poured into the songs is clearly audible, not to mention the wizardry of engineer Colin Marston, a perfect choice if there ever was any to capture a work of this nature. The distinction from Insect Ark's past works is also very noticeable. The band, along with Colin, intentionally steered the sound in a much more visceral, organic direction, and sometimes you can almost feel enclosed within a living, pulsating, slithering organism as the music washes over you. The ebb and flow of the songs as they bleed into each other is so natural that you'd be forgiven for thinking Dana and Andy tinkered with each of them for months on end after listening to The Vanishing, because they all feel like clearly defined enclosed universes all of their own. That crushing weight of Tectonic is followed by Three Gates, a jarring, almost disorienting clash of dissonance and groove where the lap steel plays a fundamental role, and that segues straight into the otherworldly duo of Philae and Danube, the album's ethereal, sinister centerpieces, and the ones that most clearly exemplify the tight dynamics set in place by the masterful songwriting. The album’s most dreamy songs, their cloudy lapsteel magic is nevertheless constantly and consistently underpinned by Patterson's swirling and earthy drum patterns, sounding for all the world as if the two recently acquainted musicians become a tight-knit army when these songs are flowing out of them. The album artwork, an amazing painting by French artist Sonia Merah, is in and of itself a work of art, but when paired with these two songs in particular, it becomes a truly haunting and mesmerising vision of some terribly twisted alternate reality. The album is then rounded out by the synth-heavy Swollen Sun, a trippy four minute journey that feels like a foray into the insides of an abandoned spaceship drifting somewhere in outer space, and by the haunted rollercoaster that is the closing title-track, a sort of summing up of all the many components that make The Vanishing so unique-sounding.
"Making music takes a lot out of me," Dana says, and it's hard not to understand why after listening to this tour de force that is Insect Ark's new album. "To pull it out of my heart and put it into the world can be emotionally difficult, since it comes from a complex place with so many facets like pain, belief, hope, anger, joy.”
released February 28, 2020
Recorded and mixed by Colin Marston at the Thousand Caves
Additional recording at Picasso Machinery and The Boar's Nest
Serge and Buchla synthesizers recorded at EMS Stockholm, Sweden performed by Ashley Spungin and Dana Schechter
Mastered by Jennifer Munson
Artwork by Sonia Merah
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Feeling honoured to support this artist. Malagti