Relay For Death
Double Compact Disc HMS039
2016 was, by most accounts, a strange year for the cultural zeitgeist. Celebrity deaths seemed to be increasingly common, which only seemed to fuel a sense of existential dread when coupled with the towering inferno that was the Presidential election. Fascism is on the rise, the European Union seems to be unraveling at the seams, and the global ecosystem appears poised to take a nosedive (along with everything on the planet). With so many factors tied together for a sense of existential dread, the timing could not be better for Relay for Death to drop the staggeringly dense Natural Incapacity.
Spread across two CDs, Natural Incapacity clocks in at about two-and-a-half hours. The physical release cuts this composition into two pieces but includes a digital download of the complete, undisrupted track. Each CD copy—limited to 150—includes a screen-printed piece of rusty metal where the CD booklet would normally be included. As someone who is not fond of the CD medium, I appreciate the added touch the rusty metal adds. CDs tend to feel like very impersonal releases (a close second to digital-only albums); the fact that someone out there spent time screen printing on rusty metal squares gives Natural Incapacity a sense of connection, importance, auspiciousness.
Having said all that, Natural Incapacity proves to be both great background music and terrible for deep listening. Abstractly, the juxtaposition between the two extremes seems almost profound. Last year’s Anxiety of the Eye worked in waves and layers, where each repeated listening helped to further unfold the textures and samples that the Spikula sisters had woven together. Natural Capacity works in similar fashion, but instead of obtuse descriptions like "wind over sand dunes" or "the sun reflecting on a salt flat," this composition is much denser: trains, steam hiss, the churning undertow at the bottom of a waterfall.
The label press release is (for once) spot-on in this case:
"seamless, glacial accretion of locomotive grind, subharmonic environmental rumble, nocturnal street sweeping, and the quavering hum of toxic chemicals perpetually leached into the water table. By design, Natural Incapacity’s oil-stained drone is completely relentless, implying neither beginning nor end to this cycle of contamination. Relay for Death’s industrial meditation recognizes abjection, horror, and defeat as the prevalent conditions to existence. Even as a declared rejection to those conditions, Natural Incapacity is engulfed in a bleak nihilism constantly churning back upon itself."
Calling this release an "endurance test" is a cop-out. The themes of environmental decay and trauma that permeate the composition are much larger than any one person or state. Whether or not someone actually believes in climate change does nothing to actually affect ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification, species extinction, et al. These are issues that unfold and develop over decades and centuries. Like shifting tectonic plates, the trauma that humans visit upon the ecosystem is one that unfolds exponentially, moving closer to a tipping point in increasingly shorter periods of time. Natural Incapacity requires no beginning or end; the situations we find ourselves in were in motion before our births, and will continue to persist after our deaths. The churning locomotive rumble is omnipresent—a perpetual siege engine running roughshod over the landscape. There are slight moments of repose but never calm; by the end of the recording there are a mixture of sensations ranging from numbness to defeat, to exhaustion. Being trapped in the furnace/generator room of a large building would yield similar effects; Natural Incapacity could have been used as sound design for all the boiler room scenes in Titanic, or at least the foundry scene from Terminator 2.
Is Natural Incapacity a great release? That distinction is more difficult to ascertain. As a Relay for Death fan with the collector’s drive, not having this release would feel like a cop-out. However, this is not an album that I find myself compelled to reach for often. The sheer length of the piece demands commitment, but the cyclical nature of its sounds and textures implies a permanence: a river or a canyon, there regardless of whether or not it is viewed, traversed, or experienced. Natural Incapacity is similarly the soundtrack to our dying world: unpleasant, unceasing, in-progress. -- Thomas Boettner