I have, over the years, enjoyed a wide variety of neo-folk music. The gothic anthems of Ataraxia led me to the medieval monumentality of Corvus Corax, which in turn dragged me to the deep, dark pits of Sopor Aeturnus and the Ensemble of Shadows’ nihilism. Current 93 and Sol Invictus made themselves known along the journey, avant-garde punctuation marks along the way towards the contemporary revival of ancient tradition spearheaded by the likes of Wardruna or Heilung. But it’s through Dead Space Chamber Music and their latest record, The Black Hours, that my initial forays rear their nostalgic heads, as Ataraxia’s neoclassical, minimal compositions best bear resemblance to this Bristol-based outfit.
The Black Hours a difficult creature to master, and this is fueled as much by the weird ambiance of the music itself as by the theme: an arrangement of medieval prayers to mark the Office of the Dead (or Liturgy of the Hours, if you prefer) drawn from a richly-decorated antique manuscript of the same name. Grief, in all its forms, is never something easily expressed or dealt with and this careful – painstaking, even – attention to the minutiae of honouring the passing hours as one would the passing of loved ones is a strange and even stereotypically Catholic one. A drawn-out process of internalizing guilt and sadness before reframing and reshaping it as a ritual celebration thereof. And drawn-out is an apt description, with twinned songs like “The Pit / Dissolved In Ashes” slowly filtering across nearly a quarter of an hour.
Holistically, the recording feels as if some sensory element is missing: the best description I can muster is that listening to the record is like standing outside the venue where an immersive live performance is taking place, adding a visual spectacle to the whole. And, while this may come across as a criticism, it is one equally applicable to a far better-known pioneer in the experimental and avant-garde – the seminal industrial/noise-rock collective Einstürzende Neubauten. Both acts present us with lofty, far-reaching themes that translate far more effectively within an intimate live space than on a disconnected, isolated recorded format. “Ion I,” for instance, could easily have sprung from a forgotten Halber Mensch session from the mid-1980s.
As such, The Black Hours is not some easy access album, not what a classical snob like the fictional Alex deLarge may have labelled “fuzzy warbles,” but rather one requiring a concerted effort and attention to fully appreciate. Here, again, a favourable comparison would be with yet another long-running name in alternative circles, that of Dead Can Dance. Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry’s dark art-rock project is also something that, at the surface level may just be semi-classical soundscape pandering, but requires undivided attention to truly grasp its complexity. And while Gerrard’s unmistakable vocal prowess may outmatch that of Ellen Southern, the Dead Space Chamber Orchestra are still in their larval form, with The Black Hours being only their second full-length release. The deceptive simplicity of “Mari Lwyd / Morfa’r Frenhines (Grey Mare / Queen’s Marsh)” – or even the radio edit thereof, included as a bonus track – echo the cathedral-like hymnals on Dead Can Dance’s second album, Spleen and Ideal, very convincingly.
While not the album version, this remix of “Liement Me Deport” is still a fitting balance of experimental audio and visual sources.
Furthermore, both these associations underscore precisely the target audience that will best appreciate The Black Hours – and sadly, it is a small one. While it does cross boundaries, the core fanbase is still deeply rooted in the goth and alternative world, but the artistic aspect of the project will bring in a more bohemian front on top of that, one more interested in the dark academia/historical ephemera facet of the music and its compositional and recording processes as much as the result. Overall, it is an ambitious album and as a collective Dead Space Chamber Music has achieved something impressive – but it is definitely not for everybody’s tastes, especially not if you suffer from a short attention span.
The Black Hours Track Listing:
1. Liement Me Deport
2. Bryd One Brere (Bird on a Briar)
3. Ion I
4. Mari Lwyd / Morfa’r Frenhines (Grey Mare / Queen’s Marsh)
5. Ion II
6. The Pit / Dissolved in Ashes
7. Douce Colombe Jolie
8. Radio edit: Mari Lwyd / Morfa’r Frenhines
Run Time: 48:22
Release Date: December 3, 2021
Record Label: Independent / Avon Terror Corps