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His Name is Alive, "All The Mirrors in the House (Early Recordings 1979 - 1986)"

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cover imageAs befits the curious and unpredictable arc of His Name is Alive, this first installment of a planned trilogy of Warren Defever's adolescent/teenage tape experiments is a truly wonderful and bewildering revelation.  Defever must have been one hell of a precocious 10-year-old back in 1979, as his formula of combining field recordings, copious reverb, and samples of records played at the wrong speeds would have easily been strong enough to build an entire career on–I daresay it was a positively Basinski-esque flash of inspiration.  Instead, however, Defever opted to move onto more song-based work and this side of his artistry was relegated to some dusty, long-forgotten boxes, which I suppose worked out quite well too.  These lovely, haunted sounding soundscapes would have made quite a huge impression if they had been released during the band's 4AD heyday though: the liner notes amusingly suggest that Defever accidentally invented shoegaze while trying to make new age music.  Fortunately, these elegantly blurred miniatures still sound absolutely wonderful today, even if the window has passed in which Defever might have been hailed as one of the most important and influential voices in ambient music (or as a proto-Slowdive shoegaze savant).

Disciples

To a large degree, All The Mirrors in the House sounds much too good to be true, as it is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that some kid in Michigan was making better ambient music than Brian Eno in the early '80s.  That caveat will likely appear in every single review of this album and for good reason (there is even a healthy degree of disbelief expressed in Mike McGonigal's liner notes).  Warren Defever has been a willfully mischievous and unreliable narrator at times and it is not unreasonable to think that there is some deliberate myth-building behind this release.  If there was, it certainly worked on me, as I was very eager to hear it.  According to Defever, however, the only post-production magic worked upon these recordings was "the overlapping of the songs for flow" (though he also notes "I really can't remember how any of it was made, or exactly when.").  By any measure, these songs sound improbably and suspiciously clean and contemporary.  And it is damn hard to imagine a pre-teen with a guitar sampler and a boombox anticipating the evolution of underground music by years, much less doing it this skillfully.  Still, I would not put it past a teenage Defever to genuinely have been this advanced at manipulating recordings, as he is a legitimate studio visionary and that did not simply happen overnight.  Also, limited resources tend to inspire innovative methods.  Anything is possible, I guess.  In all likelihood, Defever's backstory is probably at least true in spirit, as this album does not bear much resemblance to any of Defever's other recent releases.  Also, the stylistic leap from these pieces to the earliest HNIA albums is not a improbably huge one.

It would probably be apt to say that this album is the result of three perfect sets of circumstances spanning more than three decades and could not exist if any one piece to did come together just right.  The first, obviously, is that Defever acquired a tape recorder and began ingeniously misusing it immediately.  The second is that he grew up in a religious household, so the record collection that he was raiding for his sound collages was an eclectic array of "folksongs, polkas, and waltzes."  Most kids probably would have just borrowed their older brother's Zeppelin and Sabbath albums and devoted themselves to starting a rock band.  Defever also stumbled upon a CBC show in the mid-80s (Brave New Waves) that awakened his ears to fringe-dwellers like Psychic TV, so he certainly had a host of eclectic influences rewiring his brain during those years.  The final key puzzle piece is that the adult Warren Defever is singularly adept at assembling compelling and gorgeously hallucinatory album-length collages of short vignettes (1992's Home is in Your Head being easily one of my favorite HNIA albums).  Also of note: Defever had some curatorial assistance from Tyvek’s Shelley Salant, which likely played an indispensable role in distilling only the most sublime moments from the dozens of old tapes (he instructed her to specifically search for anything that was "new agey, ambient, or had echoey guitars").   Defever also jokingly suggested that McGonigal use lots of adjectives taken from Slowdive's wikipedia page in order to appeal to today's kids.

Significantly, Defever's distance from these recordings enabled him to have the perspective necessary for shaping them into such a deliberate and fully-formed vision.  There are probably many different directions that this collection could have gone, but he chose to present these years as something beautiful, ghostly, and bittersweetly dreamlike (an aesthetic that is even more pronounced in the album's eerie trailer).  While these fifteen pieces amount to quite a mesmerizing and emotionally resonant whole, there is a purity and simplicity to the individual pieces that makes their purported provenance seem arguably plausible: each piece seems to be built on just a single theme and some reverb (though Defever purportedly mimicked multitracking with strategically placed boomboxes).  For example, "Because Piano" seems totally believable as a bit of Defever's juvenilia, as it is just a minor key piano melody layered and reverb-ed into a lushly wobbly soundscape.  "Tape Slow" achieves a similar feat, as it is impossible to tell what the raw material behind the shivering, smeared reverie possibly could have been (tape experimentation at its finest).  Some of the other pieces are much harder to swallow as authentic remnants from the '80s though, particularly "Liadin" and the closing "F Choir."  Both are swooning, shimmering, and angelically beautiful miniature masterpieces.  In fact, the latter approximates an Arvo Pärt piece remixed by someone like Tim Hecker.  The shuffling and hypnagogic groove of "Outside The Window" is similarly striking–it is only a mere thirty seconds long, but it sounds like it could have been plucked from a cutting-edge dub album released this year.  Yet another highlight is "Something About Hope," which masterfully intertwines looping guitars to approximate something that could have been a stand-out on 1993's Mouth By Mouth.

While I cannot shake my skepticism about the veracity of the album's backstory and timeline, it genuinely delights me to think about a young Warren Defever gleefully deconstructing polkas and making beatscapes out of his neighbor shoveling the driveway.  Ultimately, however, how and when Defever made these recordings is far less important than the fact that All The Mirrors In The House is a legitimately wonderful album that reminds me exactly why I grew to love His Name Is Alive in the first place.  While it is always interesting and unique, Defever's output in recent years has been increasingly inscrutable, prickly, and prone to excess (or at least to outsized ambitions).  As such, an understated, intimate, and quietly beautiful album like this one is hugely welcome.  All The Mirrors in the House is a flawlessly crafted release and Defever's curatorial and sequencing instincts were unerring: there are many truly wonderful pieces here and they all flow together seamlessly in an immersive and poignant spell that never breaks or wavers.  In fact, I actually wish this album was longer, as it goes by so quickly that I find myself immediately restarting it as soon as it ends.  Not many albums have that effect on me these days.  Happily, I will likely get my wish when the rest of this trilogy eventually surfaces, but for now All The Mirrors in the House has definitively joined the ranks of Defever's strongest and most distinctive albums.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 08 July 2019 06:31  


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