This Wilderness (Beyond Beyond is Beyond)
Seattle’s Midday Veil have a lot on their collective mind in their new release, This Wilderness, and most of it is rather ominous. The seven songs on this forty-two minute album consider such topics as eternal cosmic strife, the impossibility of knowledge, the persistent illusion of human progress, and the inevitable end of epochs and civilizations along with their myths and their gods. Few of these foreboding musings are obvious on the first few hearings of this album because, despite the sometimes world-weariness of the lyrics, the music is full of good cheer. The world and its inhabitants may be coming to nothing, but that, this band proclaims, is no excuse not to dance.
Since 2008, Midday Veil has been part of Seattle’s experimental musical mystical scene, offering digital tracks and cassettes on their label Translinguistic Other. Their style is eclectic, and their literary and musical influences range from theosophical esoterica, indigenous shamanism, and ancient mythologies to Moog-era electronica, and disco. Often loose-limbed improvisational celebrations of acoustic and synthesized noise, Midday Veil’s earlier songs fit into such categories as krautrock, space rock, or psychedelic rock, and could sometimes be twenty minutes long. They call the current incarnation of their sound on This Wilderness “cosmic synth rock.”
The early-release single “Babel” sets the sonic and thematic stage for This Wilderness. It is a mix of increasingly layered synthesizers, a programmed drum track, and live drumming. Emily Pothast’s voice drifts in softly and hovers over it all. The final couple of minutes feature Bernie Worrell on the clavinet and Hammond organ. He pounds out sounds recognizable from his work with Talking Heads, especially on Stop Making Sense, and Parliament Funkadelic. Beneath the chipper indie pop surface, the lyrics of “Babel” portray a variety of falls from grace and the decay and decadence that precedes the end of days.
The song details the move from innocence to experience, and not only do human creatures suffer in the transition, but nature, too, is “devoured by the maw / of cultivation.” The momentum of civilization may seem terrific to us, but in the transhistorical perspective of Midday Veil this “progress” is a violent cataclysm. It “unfold[s] / like a plague below the sun.” The singer professes her bewildered amazement before “this wilderness,” wondering which savagery is worse—the prehistoric state of nature or modern warfare. She finds herself filled “with shame / when I aspire to codify / the thing which has no name.” The vain attempt to define the infinite is coterminous with civilization and the history of thought. With a monstrous obsessive-compulsiveness, we try to comprehend the mysterious in poor human words: the “noumenon / obfuscated by the time / the poem hits the stone.” Our efforts to name the nameless thing certainly points to our ambition to “advance,” but these merely become broken artifacts of yet another failed civilization: “claw and tongue / alternating with the points / of this lowly cuneiform.” Midday Veil suggests that for the one who seeks wisdom amidst all this babble, it is only “the echo that remains.” Some original, unsayable truth may still resound in the chasms between the falling towers built to commemorate our arrogance. “Babel” ends with that first syllable rhythmically and sheepishly repeating: “ba ba ba ba . . .”
This Wilderness is an interesting concoction of disco electronica, chill-out trip-hop, and philosophical speculation about the cosmos, its creatures, and its creators, as well as the nature of religion, myth, and history. It may be somewhat fatalistic, but it is never cynical. Even if the old creeds have been illegitimized, we are still constructing new myths out of the ruins of the old, as in the album’s second track “Cages:” “With yesterday’s cages askew on the shore / we look through the ages to build them once more.”
The imagination behind the songwriting on This Wilderness is epic, geological, and gnostic. Sometimes there are lines about the genesis of things, as in “I Am the War,” in which strife was born before the heavens and the earth, light or darkness:
When I was born
heaven was not named
no field was formed
the naked morning had no shame.
The seed of chaos and our self-destruction exists even in Paradise. The dominant sensibility of Midday Veil, however, is prophetic. Each of the songs is a statement of awe about the myriad ways we have managed to desacralize creation and leave its beauty in rubble. The Post-Empire idea is at the forefront of “Empire is No More,” an adaptation/erasure of William Blake’s poem “A Song of Liberty,” where “the stony law” is stamped to dust. “The Water” is a lament of sorts: “Is this not the water?” the singer asks now that “the fruits are black” and the oceans, called “good” on the Third Day, threaten to rise against their nature to erase us all.
While I love the music and lyrics of each song on this record and find them catchy and intriguingly allusive in ways I have yet to exhaust, I consider the final song on This Wilderness, “Universes”—a revisioning of a tale from the Upanishads, “Indra and the Ants”—the strongest and most compelling. The song is accompanied by the tick-tock rhythm of a synthesized marimba that morphs into an ominously out-of-tune toy piano accompanied by occasional digital artifacts of cacophonous noise. The four verses begin “Once upon a time” and each portrays a character who suffers a fall. In the first verse, the figure resembles the “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” who was “the envy of the town.” His “shirts were always ironed,” his “shoes always brown.” “Back in those days,” his mind was “filled with high designs.” His “charts were full of boxes;” his “graphs were full of lines.” The second and third verses tell of princely or perhaps godly figures who were envied by common people and monarchs, rich men whose names “inspired reverence,” who were respected by their fellows, ogled by women, and whose effigies filled the imaginations of children at play. Whatever awe these figures had inspired in us, they are now “wearing one too many diamonds to enforce the golden rule.”
In the final verse of “Universes,” the phenomenal and noumenal things of the cosmos persist even if we and our myths and dogmas about them do not. That, I think, is Midday Veil’s argument in “Universes:”
Once upon a time we wrote a bible in your name.
Once we even read it through out loud and weren’t ashamed.
Once we built an empire with the hands with which we pray.
Once we locked ourselves inside a fortress made of clay
whose towers toppled over with the shifting of the sands—
The rise and fall of empires is the rise and fall of man—
the rise and fall of temples as the worlds rise and fall
with the rise and fall of universes . . .
As “Universes” fades out, the individual syllables of “universes” echo, decay, and fall silent.
In the fifth track, “Circle,” Pothast sings,
Ten thousand years
I’ve been waiting for
this tide to turn
and flow into
the river of
The destruction of one age is reversed in the genesis of the next—“ashes become fire / blossoms become branches.” Although, as “Circles” says, “the vultures circle / having triumphed over all the earth,” but the chorus repeats, with some hope: “Apocalypse is what you make it / Apocalypse is what you make it.”