Few instruments are capable of evoking the level of inspiration and terror that the human voice can. The voice of the gospel choir raises the spirits of the congregation; the hiss of the black metal vocalist conjuring darkness from deep within—they’re both manifestations of the same kind of emotional rawness, and no power chord or drum solo can capture that kind of soul-stirring power. British composer and producer Roly Porter has come pretty close solely through instrumental compositions, however. His 2016 album Third Law felt like being sucked into a black hole—even more unbearably tense in its relentlessness than dark ambient music tends to be—and to be fair, it can be extremely harrowing in its greatest moments.
Porter’s previous album hit moments that, at times, carried such unbearable gravity that it left an open question of where to go next, if not to retreat into something humbler or more atmospheric. The serene opening to “An Open Door,” on Porter’s new album Kistvaen, would suggest that a more somber and sedate direction is both possible and novel, but by and large Porter has chosen a different path to pursue. On this round of recordings, Porter has enlisted three vocalists—Bragod’s Mary-Anne Roberts, Dead Space Chamber Music’s Ellen Southern, and singer/researcher Phil Owen—in the service of a conceptual pursuit surrounding burial sites as gates in time. It sounds like an exorcism.
There may be no recorded music in 2020 quite as terrifying as the album’s opening track, “Assembly.” It slowly expands and unravels from a swampy ether, growing more explosive and volcanic beneath harrowing vocal moans of horror and anguish. It’s the kind of thing that will most certainly keep you up at night. In fact, much of Kistvaen is—that’s essentially what Porter does best, blood-curdling sonic hauntings with occasional doses of aural firepower. But here, the source of that terror has changed to a degree—Porter’s ability to draw menace and violence from even relatively quiet soundscapes is an underrated quality of his, and the way in which a track like “Passage” slowly oozes its way toward a climactic release only makes the noise-choir explosion all the more impactful. A similar thing happens on “An Open Door,” which is a seemingly tame composition upon first blush, but the introduction of its choral element feels like communication from beyond this world.
To overlook the beauty of Kistvaen would be a mistake, because there is a genuinely moving and emotional set of music—one that draws its inspiration from scary, mysterious things, much in the same way that Bobby Krlic’s score to Midsommar drew visceral terror out of that film’s seemingly peaceful, pastoral setting. It feels supernatural rather than a more visceral, flesh-and-blood terror, and the closing title track puts an added spiritual spin on it, revealing a grace that’s moving in spite of the darkness that surrounds it. That it arrives on the cusp of summer might feel curious, but if any mid-year was in need of spiritual evacuation, it’s this one.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.