Vessel Queen of Golden Dogs Tri Angle
As a founding member of the eclectic Bristol collective Young Echo (and its subsidiary group, Killing Sound), Seb Gainsborough – who goes by Vessel – is no stranger to operating far outside the traditional realms of genre. After the dubbed, technoid frazzle of his debut, Order of Noise, he used homemade instruments to scratch out the entrancing machine-rituals of second LP Punish, Honey. The leap to his third album is bigger again.
This evolution was preceded by Vessel’s Transition EP with Immix Ensemble in 2016, and the live events and installations he’s taken part in with Singh Quartet, Manchester Collective and others recently. These collaborative experiences have certainly inspired him. Gainsborough’s synthesised rhythms have absorbed a polyphonic palette of voice, provided by Olivia Chaney, and all manner of bowed and plucked string instruments played by real people. Queen of Golden Dogs is as lofty and intense as the gnomic title and surrealist painting on the cover might suggest, and the songs are dedicated to the women – authors, artists, lovers – who inspired them.
The album is borne of “an infatuation with chamber music”, an intimate performance and composition style described by 19th century German Romantic icon Goethe as “four rational people conversing”. But rationality is not the first thing that comes to mind as the album’s dark string prologue is promptly chucked into a wind tunnel, with skittering drum beats and brassy synth clangs racing in all directions. It ends with a horrific throat-gurgle, segueing weirdly into Good Animal, a ghostly-pale piece for echoing voice, string and synth.
There are no easy reference points on Queen of Golden Dogs. Often, like on first single Argo, beats do not seem to be constructed from anything so mundane as kick drums, cymbals and snares, rather the scuttling clatter of ragged claws that keeps time with a torrential squall of synth lines. On the other hand, Zahir is a sublime orchestration of breaths, wordless throats, voices clustered together and teased apart. It makes your chest shudder.
Similarly extreme dynamics and contrasts pervade the whole album. After Arcanum‘s 17th-century diversion of harpsichord and sweet sighs, Glory Glory storms with percussive, electronic energy, boiling over into zig-zags of overdriven bass and hyperactive melody. In Torno-me eles e nau-eu, wisps of an ancient-sounding Portuguese choir fall away before the towering crescendo that is Paplu Love That Moves the Sun erupts into a million rave breakdowns. At this point there’s perhaps more in common with the likes of Rustie’s four-dimensional colour explosions than anything else.
Crazed and grandiose elements add up to create something so rich and otherworldly that it could almost be a Björk project. The combination of crushing, clattering rhythms with foreboding classical accompaniment even calls to mind Venetian Snares’ schizophrenic breakcore album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. Where that album’s style was tightly defined, Queen of Golden Dogs seems to jump through eras and substances.
This is almost as non-linear and free as electronic music comes. Far from being a series of repeated releases of serotonin, the songs here unfold and expand with living energy, with pain as well as pleasure.
In spite of its Coil-esque intensity, Gainsborough’s second album still retained some of the mind-wandering sketchiness that characterised his debut. Queen of Golden Dogs does not. There’s a kind of mania at work here, a dangerous glint in the eye. This is an extraordinary, exhilarating and unstable piece of art where beauty and affection exist right next to upheaval and metamorphosis, just like life.