Grumbling Fur - Preternaturals
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How is it that Grumbling Fur's albums seem to exist on a plane of existence separate to the one we refer to as reality? Three albums in and each one has conjured a distinctly alien, yet somehow recognisable place through music. These places could be in the past, an alternate history where Neu's krautrock took an unexpectedly British detour, or a future that's awaiting us if only we can survive a dramatic consciousness shift. This is before we even begin to look at the question of genre. Pah, Grumbling Fur spit in the face of genre conventions - and rightly so.
Preternaturals comes just one year after the frankly brilliant Glynnaestra set minds alight, but this is anything but a quick follow up. Recorded in the 1930s house of Ian Johnstone, this is a record that takes the groundwork laid down by tracks like 'Clear Path' and 'Dancing Light' and expands upon it in a way that, musically at least, traces a link back to the more acoustic, natural sound of Grumbling Fur's output. Of course, the trippy, space vibe remains throughout taking the traditional sound of the cello and Tucker and O'Sullivan's harmonious vocals into the distant future.
Opening with something of a tribute to Neil Megson (who fronts Throbbing Gristle and goes by the name Genesis P-Orridge) Grumbling Fur wear their influences proudly. 'Neil Megson Fanclub', which coincidentally sounds like the world's greatest fan club, is a short shot of rattling percussion, creaking doors and disembodied laughter. It's over in just 30 seconds, but that glimpse of brief madness sets the scene for the remainder of a record that seeks to expand minds yet remain aloof throughout.
Lead single 'All The Rays' starts abruptly, as though we've crash landed in the middle of an alternate dimension, with a surprisingly catchy chorus. I say surprising, but Grumbling Fur have form for ear-worm lyrics ('The Ballad of Roy Baty' being a good example). Lines that are beamed directly into your head and act as though they've been there all along, you were just to stupid to notice them. 'All The Rays' clangs into life and quickly establishes itself as a heady concoction of acoustic guitar, throbbing bass, synthesisers and what sounds like the noise of crickets. Tucker and O'Sullivan's vocals glide over the music, like visiting strangers to a new world, one which the listeners can barely comprehend.
That's something of a theme throughout Preternaturals - the album title itself hinting at the duo's artistic ideas. The concept of preternatural phenomena has long been a part of theology, defined as phenomena that appear outside of the natural, yet are presumed to have explanations within nature we haven't discovered yet. In a 2007 article (Monsters & Marvels: How do we interpret the "preternatural"?) for The American Biology Teacher, Douglas Allchin described the preternatural as "suspended between the mundane and the miraculous." Something Grumbling Fur have managed to capture on their latest record.
Take 'Feet of Clay' for example, on the face of things a rather traditional, perhaps even conservative track, yet this merely masks its true nature. The calm, contemplative melody of the cello is matched by seemingly existential lyrics, which also reference tropes of old horror tales - "the skin is creeping off your bones again." The lyrics themselves recall moments of Philip K Dick's VALIS, particularly protagonist Horselover Fat's ability to suddenly communicate in Koine Greek ("reciting letters in the tongues of ancient throats"). Given Grumbling Fur's love of Philip K Dick's work, this is likely an intended connection. Plus, the way the song obscures meaning through shrouds of layered sound - forcing you to really dig deep and focus in on the individual elements - is reminiscent of the bizarre, trashy sci-fi flick Fat and friends witness during the novel. To the average viewer a self-indulgent B-movie starring a rock icon, to the 'awakened mind' a revelation of higher intelligence and conspiracy theories about whose really been pulling the strings all this time.
Of course, Alexander Tucker and Daniel O'Sullivan refuse to offer answers and part of the joy of their work as Grumbling Fur is working out whether it means anything at all, or is just the result of a few too many psychotropic drugs. The slow pacing of the tracks, particularly the likes of 'Feet of Clay', 'Mister Skeleton' and 'Secrets of the Earth', are almost meditative. Richly detailed, so you're constantly finding new sounds and curiosities, but not so busy as to draw too much attention away from the trip. During the chorus of 'Mister Skeleton' Grumbling Fur appear to mock the audience as they sing "the clues are in the way / always in the way / you knew it before you gave it a name." The rest of track makes references to the kind of lackadaisical action attributed to stoners. Breathing in to mirrors and tracing shapes, watching the flight paths of birds, finding wonder in nature. Again Grumbling Fur return the listener to this sense of the miraculous in the mundane. As the track nears its end the cello and guitars seem to be joined by the sound effects of children's cartoons and quickly everything falls apart. The mask has slipped and we're all sitting around snacking on tortilla chips guffawing at the glowing screens before us.
There aren't many albums that can comfortably exist within grey areas, but then duality is pretty much Grumbling Fur's medium. The traditional sound of the cello is married with futuristic synthesisers, paranoid visions of satellites ('Lightinsisters') are juxtaposed with wonder in nature. Even the house where the album was recorded, an old 1930s building located in Tottenham showcases this kind of duality. Its woodland garden was described as being like an island in an area of London that took some of the worst damage from the 2011 riots - the duo's immediate surroundings certainly influenced the pastoral sound of the album, whilst the looming city (hidden, but forever watching) will definitely have inspired the more dystopian lyrics.
The final duality of Preternaturals is one of loneliness. This is something that only comes to the foreground during the album's two instrumentals - 'White China Pencil' and 'Materials Recording the Fibres of Time'. Both are deeply haunting pieces, 'White China Pencil' taking a whispered, almost inaudible vocal set over a looping backing of rattling percussion and ambient swells. 'Materials' meanwhile takes an ancient piano (the kind Eno would be proud to discover) and sets it against all manner of creaks and wails. In an album that capitalises of Tucker and O'Sullivan singing together, these moments (as fleeting as they are) provide a heavy emotional sucker punch. No words, and less than two minutes of melody, yet the entire weight of someone else's isolation has been communicated across the ether.
The gloom that pervades 'Pluriforms', Preternaturals final track, seems to continue on from the ideas recorded in 'White China Pencil' and 'Materials'. An affected, almost robotic voice speaks of the "next step" being when "the two become many". Meanwhile O'Sullivan and Tucker sing of "knitting into fibres" and learning of creatures leaving captivity. The metallic percussion drives on underneath the deep buzzing of the cello with a smattering of woodwind adding to the ominous atmosphere. At times it's as though the duo are simply singing of the reproductive cycle - an event that's surely one of the most natural - yet the language and music present something almost alien. For all of Preternaturals wide-eye wonder, this darkness sticks in the mind. Tucker and O'Sullivan end the record chanting over one another, a mystic incantation from the realm they came from. Maybe they were never really of this reality, or perhaps they were, but have peeked behind the curtain only to discover that not only is the smartest guy in the room severely lacking in reasonable answers, but he's just as confused by this whole life nonsense as we are.
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