JR Robinson’s art masterfully exemplifies the power of a collective. His band Wrekmeister Harmonies comprises up to 30 collaborators on any given record, and Robinson leads them through immense, graceful, and sobering explorations into the human condition. Despite the unwieldy number of musicians involved, the results — 2013’s You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me and last year’s Then It All Came Down — consistently present a singular vision, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Night of Your Ascension, the most fascinating and newest release under the Wrekmeister Harmonies banner, continues Robinson’s exploration into mankind’s darkest tendencies through the latest configuration of his dark orchestra.
Split into two pieces — the 32-minute title track and its companion, “Run Priest Run”, which clocks in at half that — Night of Your Ascension looks at mankind’s sense of betrayal within organized religion and innate fascination with brutality and mortality. “Night of Your Ascension” derives inspiration from the life, work, and ultimate undoing of composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, whose gorgeous and sacred madrigals are forever linked with his homicidal and self-flagellating history. He was famously colorful and daring in his compositions, and many historians draw connections between his music and the underlying guilt derived from having passionately murdered his wife and her lover after catching them in the act, not to mention his lifelong abusive habits. That same catharsis inspired by suffering and madness can be found in Night of Your Ascension.
Following a familiar pattern, “Night of Your Ascension” begins peacefully. Led by the oracular voice of Marissa Nadler, the track progresses into dreamy and celestial synthesizers. Twinkling plucked strings dance thoughtfully across a twilit stage. At this point, a beautiful restructuring of Gesualdo’s own “Ahi Dispietata e Cruda” guides the listener to a great height before guitars return them to Earth, where darkness nearly boils over. Cultish intonations, fuzzed-out guitars, and sacrificial drums then explore even further downward to find the madness thriving inside the mind.
The overall effect captures both the beauty of Gesualdo’s compositions and the darkness that can rest at the core of such a man — and once deep within, there is no escape for either artist or victim. The pace quickens in time like rushed heartbeats, and there in the bone and marrow, Wrekmeister Harmonies piece together droning and dissonant sounds like the voice of the murderous id with the help of Indian’s Dylan O’Toole. Continuing into the final fourth of the track, the descent into insanity is now complete and irreversible. Things end abruptly with little closure, apart from the promise that guilt and pain will follow Gesualdo to the grave.
The same can be said for “Run Priest Run”, which tells the story of the murder of Fr. John Geoghan, the defrocked Catholic priest whose nearly 150 molestation accusations landed him in prison. The former Boston archdiocese member was strangled by his cellmate, reportedly because he kept bragging to other imprisoned sex offenders about his exploits. The track begins with tones that might be considered playful, almost childish, but here have been muddied and distorted to an irreparable state. Soon, the approach of an overpowering force — represented by a burst of static, noise, and sludged-out maniacal riffs — beats away this ruination in an act that seems inevitable from the start. The cellmate in this tale may be destroying a monster, but that doesn’t make murder clean. Given a voice by The Body’s Chip King, the static vanquisher becomes filled with righteous rage, the ultimate adjudicator that brings the brief and grotesque tale to an end.
While associating sounds with characters may be an unconventional way of listening, Night of Your Ascension begs for that personification. The stories told and the methods Wrekmeister Harmonies use to tell them don’t necessarily require strict translation, but the album’s effect is best felt — and its purpose best understood — when you give yourself over to its story, no matter how oppressive it gets.