Roly Porter – Kistvaen (Subtext, 2020)

I’ve been thinking about death recently, following the passing of my housemate’s grandmother. To know of grief yourself and being in the proximity of those experiencing it is a strange feeling; it creates a degree of separation where you can approach it from a safe distance, cognisant of its impact, but not quite feel the full effect yourself.

My thoughts in particular have often drifted to the manner in which the dead are honoured, especially after some recent visits to the city’s Old Cemetery, which has been left to Nature’s whims for ecological reasons. 100,000 burial plots fill its land, yet most of the headstones and effigies are obscured by grasses, trees, ivy. It fascinates me to observe this disintegration of personage in real time: I can’t imagine most of the occupants would be impressed by the condition of their final resting place, but then again, who are they to say otherwise now?

Kistvaens litter the South West of England, ancient tombs and monuments from our Bronze Age ancestors. Now of course they look little more than broken tumbles of rock, their contents and interred inhabitants desecrated by looters and well-meaning archeologists. Their intent of course was to give tribute to fallen brethren so that their corporeal form may be remembered for having been, before disappearing forever. It is no different now: we have been experiencing the pain of loss and the desire for sacrosanctity after death since time immemorial.

The modern tombstone or the ancient kist ends up serving as a sort of portal, a bridge between the dead and the living, these monuments which themselves end up succumbing to time itself, where memory becomes memory. It is in this sentiment that Roly Porter seems to channel his latest record, summoning ageless rites through haunting music.

Opener “Assembly” holds some of the most primal sounds in its opening tracts, its cavernous space filled by a horrifying wailing and antediluvian chanting as though gathering some grieving mass to condense through the eye of the needle. It feels like an ushering, the collection of faces and thoughts and prayers to cry as one at the fleeing soul that is carried upon their voices and the solidifying shadow of the drone.

From there, the last telluric feeling lies in “Burial”, a piece caught between worlds as it finds itself rooted in sorrowful but grounded strings, and stratospheric noise and electronica that creates a swirling friction in its chaos. It is time to painfully decant our dead in the earth and set their souls, and our hearts, free. With that, we begin to move into the more transcendent interior pieces, more mindful, yet detached from solid ground.

“An Open Door” invites sadness through its intimate piano, wedging that gap between the here and now, and the then and there. MIDI fragments of vocals blossom in monosyllabic ritualism as the drones grow bolder and heavier, gliding into an amorphous space of possibility. It transmutes into noise, blinding and scouring, shielding us from seeing the face of God. “Inflation Field” follows with eerie scything tones, pulses and bursts of spectral energy scattered across the land, planting memories of the deceased like seeds to bud into kindled humanity. The kistvaens may be 5000 years old, but we can still see them for what they are, dream of the lives that once shone from the bones curled inside their crypts.

They are physical reminders of the journey we will all take one day, the departure of the unquantifiable sense of you which will eventually slip from your flesh. Opus “Passage” awakens to this disquieting realisation, and we’re taken on a terrifying ride with it. Ill-defined and arrhythmic at times, it jerks along in spastic synths and blipping digital notes before being sucked out in a hurricane of rushing noise, eviscerating the ethereal from the physical. We’re spinning through time and space, a temporal vortex of everything and nothing, before abruptly passing through the eye of the storm, helpless in suspended tones and crooning distant voices that support the fading event of our material time on Earth.

With it comes the titular closing track, and a curious sense of beatific freedom. Elegiac swathes of drone settle like a funerary veil, blanketing us with a comforting light. Unsettling slashes of screeching phantasms call out of the mix, preluding tumbling piano which carries the last remnants of us into the universe for the final time, names lost to the wind, bones turned to atoms, gravestones eroded into dust.

The rites we give to the dead and the spaces we allot to them for their passing are not for their corpses, whose intrinsically valuable humanity has since fled. They are for the living to give honour to one of their own who has served their term here on Earth, lived and breathed with the rest of us, and now sent to the place beyond knowing. How we choose to maintain those spaces ends up as an irrelevance in the Grand Scheme, but our respect and compassion must remain constant. They may be lost to time, but they know more than we can ever hope to dream of.