I first came across UK-based Dead Space Chamber Music on the Yig compilation. Intrigued, I explored their catalog a bit and settled on this album. Subtitled “DSCM lockdown live streams”, Hagioscope Obscura was recorded and released last year during March and June, as the pandemic was in full force. According to the group, this set of recordings is all new and unreleased material.
The composition of said group is Tom Bush on electric guitar and treatments, Liz Paxton on cello, Katie Murt on drums and percussion, and Ellen Southern on voice, psaltery, live sound textures, and tambourine. Their approach is hard to describe because it spans several subgenres: medieval music, dark ambient, discordant textural improv, electroacoustic, and probably a couple more. Indeed, the credited influences on these two long tracks include Guillaume de Machaut, Edgard Varèse, Hildegard von Bingen, Sycamore Trees as performed by Jimmy Scott, as well as several traditional, devotional, and love songs.
Bush, Paxton, and Murt vary between unstructured improvisation and more orderly approaches, while Southern’s voice is plaintive, wailing, and evocative. Their music is what might result if Dead Can Dance went to hell and then came back possessed with a need to make walls of sound. The melodies are often sparse and the rhythms frequently difficult to discern even when they exist; instead, the emphasis is on long-held notes, drones, and other extemporaneous elements. They play atmospherically, each contributing in a mostly-subdued fashion to the overall effort. Exceptions occur, however, when Southern takes on one of the covered songs and the group strays closer to conventionality (even fuzzed out riffing from Bush). Nonetheless, the overall impression that Hagioscope Obscura leaves upon the listener is one of noisy ambiance and dread. This is not to say that moments of joy do not emerge from time to time.
This is a compelling and unclassifiable recording from a very intriguing group. Thumbs way up.