Warning: This review references sexual assault and explores themes some readers may find unsettling.
When celluloid film gets jammed inside a malfunctioning projector, the intense light required to project images onto a screen causes the film to burn up. The effect is one rarely seen nowadays, the preserve of film buffs or digital aestheticians recreating nostalgic imperfections with pixels, but it is still recognizable. A moving image mutates suddenly into something monstrous and viscous, the effect unsettling as we see the great illusion of cinema abruptly and disturbingly unmasked. We all theoretically know that film is the rapid projection of still images, but our brains eagerly accept the sight the same way we encounter real life. The sudden immolation of a projected image is a rude reminder that the movement we have just been enthralled by is in fact pure artifice, not reality but an extremely convincing simulation of it. Burbling celluloid exchanges cinema’s fantastical escapisms for a horrific materiality, an unsettling reminder of the fragility of all physical phenomena, our own bodily selves included.
The greyscale artwork of Oliver Coates’ 2020 album skins n slime is strongly reminiscent of this moment when the transcendent qualities of cinema come face to face with the brutal materiality of its filmic medium. Coates’ music explores the sometimes unnerving relationship we have with the material world. Using a combination of digital loopers, distortions and choruses, the classically-trained cellist transforms the natural beauty of his instrument into a warbling, extra-terrestrial, unrecognizable ‘other’. ‘Something an android might hear as it dies,’ as one friend described it to me. On skins n slime, Coates tests the lines that demarcate naturality and beauty from deformity and ugliness, haunting our ears with the sounds of a recognizable instrument made disturbingly unrecognizable.
skins n slime opens with a sequence of five tracks which share the title ‘Caregiver’. A caregiver is someone who provides professional support to those whom our surface-obsessed, image-driven society would quietly prefer were kept shielded from common view – the sick, the old, the severely disabled. Those who do not conform to narrow standards of beauty and whose labour Capitalism cannot exploit are subtly treated as outliers, and must fight hard for their voices and needs to be heard. It is the job of the caregiver – usually grossly underpaid despite the moral and social importance of their role – to provide a dignified experience of life for those whom our production-focussed system would prefer to ignore.
The five tracks comprising the Caregiver sequence are given bracketed subtitles differentiating them as individual movements. ‘Caregiver part 1 (breathing)’ revolves around a sequence of cello loops that conjure a mournful and haunting atmosphere, the sense of some insurmountable, unspeakable trauma lurking just behind the sound. The first loop’s amputated time signature evokes a stifling feeling of claustrophobia, the interrupted rhythm reminiscent of the experience of panicked hyperventilation, the feeling of physical entrapment. Relief washes through the subsequent loop, differentiated from the previous phrase as a moment of respite, a chance to catch one’s breath. As these and similar loops repeat, the mood builds steadily until the listener almost feels caught in a cycle of breathless panic. The track evokes the atmosphere of being stuck in some overwhelming, monotonous spiral where feelings of profound mourning and utter desolation are inescapable.
‘Caregiver part 2 (4am)’ prolongs the discomfort with a saturated, detuned loop reminiscent of the terrifying isolation felt by the insomniac who haunts a lifeless world when everyone else is asleep. ‘Caregiver part 3 (slorki)’ feels like a moment of respite, but its slightly more whimsical melody fails to endure before the devastating ‘Caregiver part 4 (spirit)’ disrupts any temporary glimmer of hope. Groaning strings layer beneath chorus-soaked pianos, while a gliding extra-terrestrial whistle drifts into the foreground like a mysterious light moving ominously across a barren night sky. The subtitle ‘spirit’ compounds the track’s heart-breaking sadness, as if we are hearing the muted pain of a living soul trapped in the confines of a physically incapacitated body. By contrast, the intense drones on ‘Caregiver part 5 (money)’ sound almost transcendent, the base materiality of the track’s namesake contrasting cruelly with its soaring energy, the sound of an injured bird taking flight despite its irremediably shattered wings.
Coupling with the broad themes of incapacitation and claustrophobia, loose ideas of bodily horror run across the album. The title of the minimal and atonal ‘Philomela Mutilation’ references the tragic tale of Philomela in Greek mythology, the most complete account of whom can be found in the Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid. In this tale, Tereus, King of Thrace and son of Ares, is sent by his wife Procne to fetch her sister, Philomela, so that the sisters may live together in his kingdom. On the voyage back to Thrace, having convinced Philomela’s father to let her leave by offering a vow of protection, Tereus begins to lust after his sister-in-law, and, on their arrival back in his kingdom, he locks her in a cabin and rapes her. Angered by her refusal to maintain silence, Tereus cuts out Philomela’s tongue and leaves her abandoned in the cabin; but Philomela succeeds in weaving a tapestry communicating the evil deeds of her brother-in-law, and manages to have it sent to her sister. Procne takes revenge on her behalf by killing Tereus’ son, boiling him, and feeding him to her husband. The two sisters are then pursued by the angered Tereus, managing to escape only when their prayers are heard and the Gods turn them into a swallow and nightingale respectively. The story is gruesome and traumatizing – even by the standards of Greek mythology – but the final image of the sisters turned to song birds, their voices restored, speaking truth to power, symbolizes the experience of many once-silenced woman to this day, inspiring them to reclaim their voice and use it to bring down structures of chauvinistic power and dominance.
This story fits in with a loose theme that runs throughout skins n slime; that of the body as a sight of trauma, not of pleasure. The mutated and uglified sounds of the cello mimic the decomposition and uglification of our own physical selves, the sound reflecting the painful process of seeing our own bodies succumb to drab materiality, sagging and wrinkling in cruel contrast with the carefree and childish spirits we forever imagine ourselves to be. ‘Still Life’ carries clearly traumatic connotations, its distorted, trilling cellos and disembodied, filtered voices combining to chilling effect. But ‘Butoh Baby’, with its regal, sawing strings and simmering bass drones, is a standout. The title references the 20th century style of Japanese dance, Butoh, which explores the human body’s imperfections through movement. The experience of watching Butoh is one of seeing human naturalness made disturbing and unappealing. Life is traditionally and universally assumed to be sacred and perfect, and so to see it reduced to something horrifying, void of transcendent beauty (though certainly not artistry), is chilling. In Butoh, particular emphasis is placed on bodily movements which result from the push of uncontrolled forces, external or internal, broadly relating to ideas of the loss of centralized control conjured in the ‘Caregiver’ sequence. Here again we get the sense that the human body, removed of agency, is reducible to something frail and fragile, unmoveable of its own conscious will and therefore forever at the mercy of the external world.
Later tracks ‘Reunification 2018’ and ‘Honey’ use massive, impenetrable drones like enormous container ships moving in fog to further the idea of the material world as neither agile nor noble, but rather distended and viscous. ‘Honey’, in particular, is a standout, as gloopy and as thick as its title would suggest, though lack anything in the way of sweetness. The track cuts through with such enormity, its bass drone roaring, its soaring melody speaking only of sheer tragedy, that the immersive experience of listening to it is like losing oneself in a frightening wall of cosmic noise. The piece exists in a liminal space between heart-wrenching human emotion and horrifying alienation, straddling opposites, as terrifying as it is emotionally poignant.
Relief does come on the final track, ‘Soaring X’, where the intensity of the previous forty minutes falls away and some semblance of tranquillity emerges. Coates’ cello meanders like a flitting butterfly, free of manipulating effects, and the cool tones of Malibu’s spoken word feature provide a soothing atmosphere of summer lethargy, her gorgeous images of the natural world like incantations from a half-forgotten dream. It does not, however, feel as though the nightmare has ended completely. The mournful aspects remain prevalent, the piece sounding more like a moment of quiet relief than one of absolute rebirth. It is the happiness of an insomniac hearing the chirruping birds and realising the terrors of midnight remain a whole day away; of an isolated individual connecting, however briefly, with another sympathetic mind. Hope, it seems, can exist only in respite. Despite the small slice of comfort this final track provides, disgust and slime still feel as though they have won the day. The fragility of the material world exposed, we as listeners cannot go back, cannot but recognize that the things we love most – the touch of another’s body, the sound of a musical instrument – can at any moment horrify us with only the slightest change in their conditions.
Indeed, listening to skins n slime is to be reminded of the fragility of all existence. Coates’ music mourns the material world, shocking us with the realisation of how easily beauty can be made ugly, how fleeting our own physical existences are, and how easily we too could become horrifying and unsightly. That the sound of an instrument as graceful as the cello could ever be transformed into something so unsettling is testament to a material vulnerability all of us must reckon with, that everything in this world has the potential to turn away from stability and comfort to become, at any given moment, a site of absolute, inexorable horror.