Over the last several years, Marc Richter's Black to Comm project has swelled considerably in ambition and scope, blossoming into a shape-shifting and idiosyncratic force with a strong propensity for the epic. With this latest album, his first for Thrill Jockey, Richter reaches a darkly hallucinatory new plateau with his art. It is difficult to say whether Seven Horses For Seven Kings is Richter's masterpiece, as there is stiff competition from a couple of his other recent albums, but it is unquestionably his heaviest and most vividly absorbing opus to date, unfolding as a disorienting and harrowing nightmare that increasingly stretches and strains towards transcendence.
Marc Richter certainly has a gift for properly setting the stage for a uniquely phantasmagoric experience, as "Asphodel Mansions" slurs and oozes into being as a squirming mass of sickly, deflated, and uncomfortably discordant horns.In fact, the early pieces on¬†all evoke the feeling that I have just been drugged or fatally poisoned and that I used my last burst of strength to stumble into a cabaret before fading out of consciousness.As my life ebbs away, I can hear all of the expected sounds of a small jazz band, but they all take on a menacingly disjointed, distended, and hellish texture as the neon-lit room spins around me.Even the drums in "A Miracle No-Mother Child At Your Breast" are not safe from the infernal transformation, as they feel like they are happening at an extremely slowed time-scale in which a lively fill is reduced to a deep, hollow, and echoing caricature of itself.Richter also seems to draw inspiration from fundamentally uncomfortable and unpleasant sounds during that first phase of the album, as the crescendos are rife with artfully blurred and transformed homages to alarm clocks and car alarms.It is not until the third piece, "Lethe," that the veil of dissonant and undulating grotesquerie starts to dissipate, allowing the first hints of a more structured and deeper album to creep into the frame.At first, the shift towards more warm and melodic fare takes the shape of a smoky and serpentine saxophone over a hissing and throbbing backdrop of drones, but glimpses of considerably more detailed and harmonically rich vistas increasingly emerge as the album reaches its midpoint.In that regard, "Ten Tons of Rain in a Plastic Cup" feels like the doorway that frees me from the claustrophobic cacophony...and opens into somewhat more expansive and varied hellscape, as its swirling dissonance is gradually eclipsed by an ascending and darkly radiant progression of synth chords (albeit one gnawed by inhuman howls).
The following "Licking The Fig Tree" is the first unambiguously beautiful piece on the album, as a passionate eruption of free-jazz saxophone howls and squirms its way across a warm and lush landscape of deep organ chords.¬†After that reverie, however, the bottom drops out and Seven Horses hits its lysergic, fragmented, and fitfully visceral crescendo.On the album's single (of sorts) "Fly On You," masses of shivering drones and strangled horns collide with booming and clattering percussion that sounds like massive, clanking machinery trying to replicate the sounds of a ping-pong game."If Not, Not" is even more unhinged, as it feels like a thunderous taiko drumming ensemble drifts in and out of phase beneath a chaos of guitar noise and dissonant synth tones‚Ä¶then gets joined by the cabaret chanteuse who was enigmatically absent from the album's first third.Normally, the appearance of a recognizable human voice would soften such a roiling miasma, but not this time, as the vocalist's phases grotesquely smear, warp, and intertwine into sinister incomprehensibility.The anachronistic Japanese war drums recur a few more times, most notably in "Semirechye" (courtesy of guest Jon Mueller), but the album's final stretch is primarily significant for featuring its most most gorgeous and swooningly hallucinatory pieces.The first of those is "Angel Investor," which is essentially just an immensely dense and oversaturated two-chord organ motif embellished with a vibrant nimbus of alternately howling and angelically warbling tones.In characteristic Richter fashion, however, the piece undergoes a brief rocky spell in which it violently warps like a collapsing star.Even heaven itself is precarious in the context of this album.
The ominously titled final piece ("The Courtesan Jigokuday≈´ Sees Herself as a Skeleton in the Mirror of Hell") is the most lovely of all though, as its squirming and ghostlike loops recall Richter‚Äôs Jemh Circs project (repurposed YouTube samples) at its most achingly sublime.That title also sheds some light on one of Richter's probable inspirations for the album, as it references a hauntingly macabre Yoshitoshi woodblock print, which itself references the much older Japanese/Buddhist tale of "The Hell Courtesan."Though it has taken several different forms and tones since it first appeared, it is ultimately a tale of enlightenment and redemption, themes that Richter seems to have a deep interest in (samples of evangelists are a recent recurring theme in his work and "The Deseret Alphabet" references the Mormons' doomed attempt to create a new alphabet).I would hesitate to call Black to Comm "religious" though, even if if it occasionally approaches the ecstatic.It seems more accurate to say that Richter is fascinated and inspired by the myriad ways in which people wrestle with meaning and the condition of being human.That said, it would not surprise me at all if Seven Horses was intended as a deeply abstract reenvisioning of Jigokuday≈´‚Äôs story, as it definitely feels like an album that valiantly strains to pour a lifetime of anguish, lust, doubt, and transfiguration into two slabs of vinyl.I am not sure such a quixotic feat is entirely possible, but Richter's efforts certainly make a powerful impression regardless of his intentions or inspirations.While both Black to Comm and Alphabet 1968 have their share of compositional wonders that rival Seven Horses‚Äô strongest moments, this album is nevertheless on a plane all its own in terms of distinctiveness, execution, and boldness of vision.