There is a decent case for chopping music up into easily digestible chunks. Genre, sub-genre, micro-genre. The world, by which I mean the internet, doesn’t just benefit from this kind of compartmentalisation, it needs it to survive. It is part of the symbiotic online relationship between creator, listener and the nebulous and often non-human forces that lie at the heart of our favourite websites, helping us to find new music or lodging us contentedly into the rut of what we think we like.
Go onto Bandcamp (by far the best of the music streaming services, by the way) and search by genre for ‘mallsoft’ or ‘lowercase’ or ‘deathdream’. You may find that these apparently ultra-limited genres are liberating rather than restrictive. As you follow ever more exclusive links to increasingly weird musical subcultures you begin to notice two things: firstly, that there is a community to suit every possible taste (a real community made up of real people), and secondly, that everything is linked. You can play a kind of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon by seeing how long it takes, clicking on the genre tags that appear at the bottom of nearly every album on Bandcamp, to get from gabber to devotional to witch house.
What this means is that genre, if it exists, is both infinitely fluid and infinitesimally divisible. This is how the internet’s democratisation of music works, and it can be annoying and it can be great. Where the listener is concerned, this kind of freedom comes, as they say, at a price. We have a duty – to ourselves and to the artist – not to get bogged down in the underhand and flaccid kind of tribalism that results in pigeonholing musicians. All kinds of music, even the most brash, can contain subtleties, and at risk of straying into the politics of listening, I think we should try as much as possible to be attuned to those subtleties.
One of the most subtle and fluid new releases I have heard this year is Could Divine, the new album by anrimeal, a London-based artist originally from Porto whose real name is Ana Alves. Alves created all of these pieces in lockdown, with minimal outside influence. One track, I Am Not, has electric guitar and drums performed by Huw Roberts and Miguel Crespo, but aside from that it is all her own work. And it shows: Could Divine is one of the most personal and individual musical statements to emerge from a year where making music in your bedroom has been, well, just about the only option.
On hearing the first few seconds of opening track Marching Parades you could be forgiven for thinking that you were hearing some simple but lovely dialogue between ambient and folk music, something weird and pastoral that dips in and out of Virginia Astley territory while remaining constantly informed by the trippier side of the Incredible String Band. Something that a few years ago might have nestled into the freak folk category, but wouldn’t have been too offended if you’d called it folktronica. There are a number of signifiers to support this – it starts with a field recording of birdsong, there are strings aplenty, both plucked and bowed, and the song’s vocal part is as soft, dreamy and detached as you could hope for. But there is something else at work here, even if it takes you a couple of listens to catch it. The first clue is in the whispered vocal snippets that precede the main sung section, and their accompanying blips and percussive scratches. Then the birdsong is augmented by another sound, a haunted, repetitive hoot somewhere between natural and artificial, between a dark wood and a city street.
Marching Parades’ first discernible lyrics – ‘Scratching the surface of what I can and cannot do’ – provide another clue towards interpreting Alves’ practice. She is a denizen of the edgelands of music, the place where perceived boundaries begin to dissolve, and the deeper you go into Could Divine the more her experimental instincts come to the fore and the hazier those boundaries become. On Encaustic Witches there is a droning intro and strummed chords, an almost stereotypical soundtrack to an occult rite. But again there is a subtle but powerful undertow – shards of broken glass, a fervent prayer or anti-prayer, a wonderfully incongruous bassy boom that sounds like a slowed down, synthesised human voice. This is folk music from the depths of the uncanny valley.
Alves plays with repetition and its lulling or discomfiting properties. The minimal, warped electric guitar that winds through the first half of I Am Not suddenly grows cacophonous, backed with clattering percussion. It then settles back into its previous form, only now it is joined by doomy bass notes and the song feels changed beyond repair. A song in possession of a phantom limb, a song to which a dark cloud has attached itself. Alves has a frankly incredible ear for this kind of tidal shift within a song. It results in fleeting and unexpected narrative structures growing out of otherwise minimal pieces.
On Elegy for an Empty Coffin the bulk of the work is done by her voice, multi-tracked and treated until it seems she is being shadowed by a spectral double, and spookiness is ramped up even further by the gently increasing, unidentifiable crackle of percussive effects and the introduction of a sombre piano. The piano reappears, hesitant and childlike, in the first half of Headrest, before reinventing itself in the song’s sweeping, quietly sophisticated coda, which submits the same five words to various treatments that take in warped electro-pop, a Julia Holter-esque fusion of soul and neoclassical, and even post-rock.
But it isn’t until the title track, which comes six songs into the album, that we feel the full force of Alves’ experimentalism. Cut-up sections that include call-backs to previous songs, collages of electronically produced sounds that are by turns squelchy, choppy or clangorous. And then, thrillingly and frighteningly, she disgorges us into our own flawed world, ‘this world of unfamiliar diseases.’ And it is with this kind of current, vital detail that genre boundaries really become fluid.
She follows this up with Vertical, a deconstructed folk song with a chatter of handclaps, and then a silent – or almost silent – section that prepares you for the closing track, Death, a visceral, semi-spoken exploration of the human body and the rituals – sexual and supernatural – we surround it with. The birdsong that ends the album, and that began it, is part of the ritual too. Alves wishes herself into the body of a bird and in doing so completes a kind of circle, a primeval space created to worship the other, to bathe in the uncanny properties of displacement.
There are many words for this kind of music; those Bandcamp descriptors include compu-folk, ambient and drone, amongst others. But really all of those words, and perhaps all of the words in this review, are redundant. Could Divine is the kind of album that could only have been made now, in this weird space that the world inhabits, and it is the kind of music that makes us realise that our relationship with that world is more nebulous and more beautiful than we thought.
Could Divine is out now