Ten minutes and nine seconds after pressing ‘play’, on completion of God Does Not Help Those Who Are Invisible – the first track on this album – I wasn’t a believer. My soul remained unmoved, mired in an inability to grasp the vision being brought into being by self-professed ‘Cowboy of Drone’, Blake Edward Conley.
Don’t panic. I persisted for two reasons: One, I’ve got enough self-awareness (just!) to know when I’m rushing to judgement unjustly, and two, I owe it to you good folk, the Sleeping Shamanistas, to proffer some sort of useful prose to guide you toward the good stuff and away from the stinking morass of self-indulgent tripe that seeks to take your time, your money, and space in your mind/heart/hard drive.
Music is like entheogens; our state of mind before partaking can be an integral part of the experience that is created. So it was that I returned to Whatever Truthful Understanding at a time when I was feeling less closed off to something a little off my well-beaten track. I did myself a favour.
One of the things I love about being allowed to write for The Shaman is getting to hear things that I wouldn’t take a chance on myself, or that wouldn’t even float across my own narrow field of interest. This album probably falls into this category.
Conley sets out his stall from the off by calling himself the Cowboy of Drone. Whatever Truthful Understanding is a parched, arid desert of an album, a prairie gazed at from a dust swept veranda. There are cicadas, the noise of the empty wind, and rain, all topped by a harsh, razor edged, clean guitar that could slice through the leather toe of a cowboy boot without dulling. That it was recorded in Las Vegas, a city purposely built in the middle of the desert comes as no surprise, but this is definitely looking out at the surrounding wilderness, not inward at the modern day Gomorrah.
The album begins with God Does Not Help Those Who Are Invisible, a chorus of cicadas giving way to a rhythmic, tremolo drone, through which a Dobro-like guitar comes peeking. A simple melody emerges, seemingly paying no heed to the throb established by the initial drone. These plucked, musical phrases ascend through repetition, increasing the artist’s palette through playing with musical modes. Thus, the artist’s vision can be realised, and we can be taken along, almost tasting the bone dry earth on the wind.
the noise of the empty wind, and rain, all topped by a harsh, razor edged, clean guitar that could slice through the leather toe of a cowboy boot…
Just One More Thing adds a looped, distorted female voice to the sonic landscape, building, phasing in and out like a semi-tuned longwave radio or a far-off numbers station. An ominous ever-present drone underpinning the razor twang of an insistent Morricone-esque guitar gives an unsettling feeling to the piece, particularly when accompanied by the looped, just-audible disembodied voice. Deliciously discomfiting!
Mojave Pastoral adds some new elements into the droneroom mix, namely drums and stand-up bass ingredients that give the sound an agreeable new dimension. A layered, distorted voice sweeps across the room over the ever-present drone, followed by a minimal slide guitar and some delicate cymbal. The drums swell in and out of the soundscape, swapping foreground with bass and shards of glassy guitar as the kick and hi-hats attempt, unsuccessfully, to corral them and impose some kind of rhythmic order on proceedings, aided by some desert wind conjuring brush work. Forgive the Lizard King allusion, but this is a mescaline fuelled, meandering trip through the desert, complete with soundtrack and narration from somewhere within Heschl’s gyrus. The trip is complete with an incorporeal, reversed answering machine voice, recalling the Lynchian Man from Another Place.
We Are The Creatures This Desert Makes Us is described in the accompanying promo material as the ‘comedown’ from the preceding piece. This is certainly true as phasing drone and familiar chiming Western-tinged guitar resolve into a welcome state of gentle euphoria… setting us up nicely for Beyond The Horse Gate, the album finale.
I’m sitting on a veranda looking out at a seemingly endless vista of desert, scrub, and mountains, insects chirruping around me. There is something liminal, and unsettled about this space. Something is approaching – nightfall, dawn, or something more sinister? A sharp-edged guitar plays with, and around, some well-honed phrases invoking a sense of melancholy and longing, feelings that are underpinned and emphasised by a static drone. This yearning is upended as the guitar deviates from its established mode, jolting the ear and unsettling the listener before skillfully returning to the gentle pining of its former voice. Yet, something’s coming.
The guitar starts to become more frenetic, building, augmented by the sound of rain, a storm? Driven amplified guitar begins to stretch lines over and against what the first half of the piece has established in its benign idiom, drowning it out completely on occasions with nerve-jangling noise, receding, ascending to engulf the piece completely. The rain continues. The storm, though, has passed.
Whatever Truthful Understanding is an album that I’m likely to reach for when I’ve got the taste for something in the vein Dylan Carlson’s most recent work, or perhaps Steve Von Till’s sans-Neurosis exploits, these are the two most likely touchstones of this work, and fans of either should seek it out. I’m going to return to the trip of Mojave Pastoral now. I need a hit of that aural mescaline.
Scribed by: George Green