Colossus by Andrew LilesRelease date: March 11, 2018
I’ll freely admit to being on track 2 of this album. “You’re only on track 2, and you’re reviewing it? What kind of terrible critic are you?” you, the reader, ask with a not insignificant amount of probity. It gets worse: I’m only on track 2 of this album, and I’m going to assert that this is one of the most important albums that will come out this year. Let me explain.
Colossus, the new album from Current 93 and Nurse With Wound affiliate Andrew Liles, lives up to its name. You might think that La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano is epic at 5 hours. John Cage’s famed performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations clocked in at around 18 hours. Colossus, when completed, will have a run-time of just under 42 hours, and it will consist of 50 tracks, each having a duration of 50 minutes. We have half at the moment; part two is scheduled to emerge from its chrysalis on March 11th, 2019 – Liles’ 50th birthday (of course).
And they are all covers. Well, ‘versions,’ in the sense that its used in dub reggae might be more accurate, as these sound nothing like the originals, which you might have guessed from the fact that they are all 50 minutes long, and there aren’t a lot of 50 minute long songs out there. The originals are all the pop songs that were at the top of the BBC charts on Liles’ birthdays, which means you get ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ and ‘99 Red Balloons’ chewed up, ground up, and utterly reconstituted. The lyrics have also been reconstructed – literally – by using Burroughs’ cut-up method, and they are read by a variety of guests, including Maniac, from Mayhem.
So, it’s a gimmick, right? I couldn’t be serious when I said this was important. But I was.
What we have here is nothing less than a spiritual successor to the Golden Record that was carried into space by Voyager. This may be the most comprehensive and sustained attempt at the deconstruction of pop music in history. Pop music – well, successful pop music – generally adheres to a fairly simple set of rules, which usually limits the amount it can truly move a person. It may encourage the body to move, but Top 40 music generally does not force you to question who you are and why you are here, as all great art must. In many ways, despite its usually upbeat at catchy rhythm, it is, at base, a sedative, especially under capitalism. In the age of streaming’s paltry compensation for musicians, we might as well call Top 40 music what it is: a collection of penny dreadfuls.
Of course, as with all maligned art forms, there are those that turn it on its head and make something wonderful. But rarely do they do it at such an intense level – and at such a level of remove. The songs here are made of bizarre, repetitive synth structures, creating entire minimalist worlds out of the originals. Like much great minimalist music, it is both unsettling and profoundly calming. To put it in a different sense: Where Philip Glass reckoned with pop music by taking its simplistic structures and running with them, Liles takes the simplistic structures and breaks them, showing the profoundly wasted potential of the underlying sublimity.
Music is one of the most beautiful gifts of the world; it allows us to think things through in intensely bizarre ways, and it reminds us endlessly of our own mortality. Its medium is the very air we breathe. So pop music, like the penny dreadful, emphasizes the narcotic ‘side effect’ of culture, the second meaning of Plato’s pharmakon: that which cures and kills. Liles performs, then, necromancy.
Which is, of course, fitting, as this album is fundamentally an album of death. One of the more trite images in philosophy is that of Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus; we are thrown into the future with our face to the past. However, the past is malleable. Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a similarly epic work, delved into the past using a bizarre series of quotations, ruminations, and profoundly ahistorical thoughts in order the elucidate the present moment, to reveal something of a sort of truth in a flash, as all the stars he lays out become a constellation. Paired with the profound morbidity of music, this “crate-digging” attitude, this understanding of our relationship to the past, becomes ultimately a search for meaning in the wreckage of history.
The difficulty of this task, for both composer and listener, leads me to question whether or not we are ever supposed to listen to this album in its entirety. Part of the joy of this album is its epic nature, but we know now in our postmodern skepticism that epics are never complete. It would not hugely surprise me if part two never comes, if Colossus, like the Colossus of Rhodes, stands complete only in our imaginations.