It’s the sound of a tilted landscape, of trepidatious steps down a dark hallway lined with doors hiding secrets. It’s unseen eyes watching from above, circling slowly closer and closer. It’s the buzzing in my head at 4am, riding the last dregs of caffeine, the sound intermingling with the bitterness of the coffee and the apprehension in my stomach.
It’s all of these things, and it’s none of these things. It’s Marrow Hymns, the new album from Insect Ark, and yet still I maintain it’s the sound of my own personal unease, and somewhere in the reconciliation of the two lies the review I can never write, as words would dull and diminish the mystery better experienced first hand. But you need something to anchor yourself to, so maybe a bit of history, both mine and the band. I never heard of Insect Ark before November of last year, when I saw Dana Schechter alone on a makeshift stage in the basement of the sadly now-defunct Bar Matchless in Brooklyn, NY. Armed with a synthesizer and effects, the sound that welled up in that room was transportive. People talk about particular types of music needing to be played loud, but nowhere was that necessity more evident to me than here, as the rich weaving of harmonics reached a level where they flowed into me, re-arranging my organs for the duration of the set. Three other bands followed her, but I left the show that night determined above all to experience more of that sound, that specific synthesis of frequencies.
Outside now. Portal/Well came out in 2015 constructed and executed by Schechter right before being joined by Ashley Spungin on drums and additional synth and pedal work (Spungin couldn’t make the show that night, which is why I saw Schechter solo). Pulsing ambient tones and slowly moving noise reverberate in and out of phase against programmed drums. Slide guitar and lap steel add a spectral, haunted quality to the title track, recalling more cinematic touchstones like Angelo Badalamenti or Clint Mansell. But there’s a grounding to the music that, forced to point to an comparison more in line with our genre of choice I’d look at later releases like Earth: even if the music is different there’s a sensibility in tracks like “The Collector” and “Octavia” that bring to mind what Dylan Carlson was achieving with much lower tones on The Bess Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. As evocative as the music is, it took the addition of Spungin to flesh out the bones of Insect Ark.
Marrow Hymns immediately feels larger. Intro “Thelema” has a wide scope, coming toward you and enveloping your head before the dusty western blues vibe of “Arp 9” evokes a barren country of memories purposefully buried. The warmth coming from Spungin’s drums is a beautiful and welcome expansion to Schechter’s core strengths, and seeing how the duo play off of and complement one another in layer after layer of sound is remarkable, especially considering how the pair live on opposite ends of the country. That sense of distance is palpable o the recordings, the space in the production on “In the Nest” echoing that sense of loss. The mood varies: “Skin Walker” may be the closest thing resembling a post-metal rocker, but the ambient textures permeating the left and right channels refuse to let the song sit on its laurels. “Tarnish” plays more as a tone poem, with sequences fading in and out over soft, fragile lines. Its ability to mirror both darkness and an approaching light is indicative of the entire album.
Back inside. It’s some time after 5am, and the diffused light refuses to commit to day or night. I don’t think I have any music playing, but I can still trace echoes of Marrow Hymns in the air. Insect Ark are creating music that doesn’t fit into any established mold, except the music that haunts our dreams and colors our memories. I keep replaying my life in my head, and it has a sinister bend thanks to Schechter and Spungin.