Sarin Smoke – what a delicious prospect! Two of American noise/drone’s most talented and psychedelic figures, ex-Yellow Swan Pete Swanson and Charalambides’ Tom Carter combining over 40+ minutes? Yes, please! But it gets better, because all profits of Vent will go to help Carter with his health bills following a terrible bout of pneumonia, so massive kudos must go to Swanson, who organised the release, and the guys at MIE Music.
Vent initially seems to be dominated by Swanson, with ‘Atmen Ein’ edging out of the speakers with an inchoate, hesitant impetus redolent of the epic drones of Yellow Swans’ excellent swansong album, Going Places. The tones are dark and heavy, with static buzz and sudden, staccato surges that echo both metal and drone traditions. Even a cursory glance, however, at Swanson’s solo output since Going Places demonstrates that he has been constantly looking to analyse and expand upon, or divert from, the archetypes of his past music. In Carter, he’s found an excellent sparring partner/collaborator, for the Charlambides man brings a certain understated melodicism to proceedings, his rambling guitar lines twisting around themselves in graceful arpeggios to transform each track into a form of post-noise psychedelic folk. In comparison (I think – as always with this sort of music, it’s hard to tell who plays what, so I’m going by past experience, which is probably dangerous), Swanson’s guitar is a monolith, a saturated haze akin to the ferocious noise of Matt Bower when he’s laying it on like a motherfucker in Skullflower or Voltigeurs. This heady contrast between the two angles, which the duo expertly mingles (hence the above-mentioned confusion on this journo’s part) with with brittle oscillations and loops, is the driving force behind Vent and helps transform their music into something more than a side project.
‘Atmen Ein’ is a fascinating and oblique track to open the album with, and it’s easily the most “difficult” one on the album, with the tension between the guitar dynamics at paroxysms. At times, it brings to mind the bleak, slovenly power electronics of Ramleh’s Valediction, minus those guys’ haunted misanthropy and anger but with a similar emphasis on dense clusters of mutant sound. As the album progresses, an almost reassuring hum floats in the background to contrast with the extended guitar drones while the foreground is occupied by more emphasised slaloming guitar progressions and pentatonic scales. ‘Pranayama’ is an 11-minute triumph, bristling with restrained tension, with the solos piling on top of one another without ever reaching the kind of climatic payoff that dominates “regular” rock. But make no mistake: this is rock music, of a kind devolved into abstraction, and it stands as another phase in the evolution that noise, drone and psych artists, from these two to Double Leopards, Lightning Bolt to Gate, have performed on the staples of rock in the last 30-odd years.. I’d even argue that the developments of recent decades have been as radical and interesting as those that the genre went through in the late sixties to late seventies, even though they’re much less heralded. When one of Carter or Swanson launches into a molten post-Hendrixian solo at the very start of ’Black Mercury’, it’s a proper head-banging thrill, yet the background of distorted drone also links it to Nurse With Wound’s genre-bending ‘Six Mock Projections’, from Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella. Rock has become so much more than its roots, but what is great about Sarin Smoke is that they balance these new horizons with a solid foundation in melody and even -whisper it- tradition.
As well as being an album worth purchasing for altruistic reasons, Vent is also a damn fine listen, a noise rock album with a strong psychedelic bent. I guess it doesn’t really go beyond that, although it may make you consider what “psychedelia” means in this cynical, post-hippy world (I wouldn’t recommend dropping acid before putting Vent on, which begs the question: can you properly trip out to psych music even when not on drugs? The answer’s probably yes, which in itself is fascinating). Two classy cats jamming and producing weird and wonderful (and still recognisable) sounds that you can buy to contribute to the greater good? Count me in!