The album begins before you’re aware of it. A sonic mist encroaches, building slowly out of silence. Soon we hear burbling water and the squelching, squishing sound of steps wading into the muck of a swamp. Tones rise up, almost painful in nature, sounding like metal rubbing against metal. Then suddenly we’re hit with towering, wince-inducing squalls of feedback buttressed by chest-rattling bass. The feedback gradually stabilizes somewhat and comes to sound like the hollow blasts of a pipe organ, suggesting that we’ve entered a kind of open-air cathedral. But there’s no implied sanctity, nothing ceremonial at work, just revolving, layering sounds occupying space without establishing fixed contours. Then all of this is swept back, leaving a woozy, cycling buzz in its wake, the return of running water, and the sound of footsteps wading away.
If such a thing could be materialized, the title of that opening track, “Fog Constellation (approaching)” could serve as a kind of model for the myriad ideas and impulses at work on Swamps/Things, the new album from Kassel Jaeger on Shelter Press. It suggests something both nebulous and pinpoint specific, something that approaches from no known direction and heads toward no known destination, calling into question your own location in relation to it.
With this album, Jaeger (aka François Bonnet, musician, composer, author of The Infra-World and The Order of Sounds, as well as artistic director of Ina GRM in France) approaches the swamp as an idea – a metaphorical cauldron and locus of creativity where decay and growth are interchangeable components in a larger process of constant becoming. To further clarify, Jaeger states:
The Swamp is us. Our own disappearance, populated by all the beasts we have turned into, by the places we have haunted, and by the time we have consumed. We are traces in an always intermediate state.
As the album progresses, it explores, in a relatively more subdued fashion than the opening track, an array of liminal states and concepts. All is flux in Jaeger’s moody realm. From the stealthy, oscillating pulses and hidden high tones of “River Wensum Roe Deer” to the incremental emergence of a gentle chorus of creatures in the nocturnal landscape of “Patience in Kassari,” each track mutates and evolves according to its own DNA. A peak example is “Accalmie (light gaps)” which begins with withered, high-pitched aspirations furling out over a shifting, layered drone. In the midst of this studied abyss come distant percussive pops, metallic, bright, and randomly clustered. As they approach and disappear, the droning foundation rises in volume and mass, and the aspirations transform to gritty neon contrails that hang in the air, leaving streamers as they decay. After reaching a peak, the aspirations return and the original landscape slowly recedes.
Jaeger draws things to a close with “Ré Island Fireflies (in a distance).” Chirping crickets, throbbing bowed marimbas, and something sounding like distant vocals merge over an increasingly ominous drone. Thanks to the languid, almost narcotized pace of the piece’s near-15-minute length, however, tensions never arise and the moment becomes re-absorbed into the mysterious quagmire it arose from. The piece is gorgeously immersive and powerfully evocative. And it ends with a slow fade to black on a human-free world of crickets.
The album title, Swamps/Things references the half-human/half-plant creature Swamp Thing from DC Comics, while two other tracks, “NYC Bobcats” and “Paris Mustangs” conjure up images of free-roaming, undomesticated animals set in hyper-developed metropolitan environments. As the escalating climate crisis drives both humans and animal species from their habitats into new environments simply to stay alive, forcing a kind of evolutionary hand, it becomes apparent that in Swamps/Things, Jaeger is looking at not only his and our past/s, but also considering the future of our planet, with or without humans. We came from the primordial swamp and, he seems to be saying, that’s where we’ll finally return.