Combing ferocity with beauty is something that has always played a central role in the music of James Kelly. In his other musical life the Cork artist makes up part of currently-in-limbo Atmospheric Black Metal outfit, Altar of Plagues, a group whose knack for vicious energy is made all the more gripping by the constant undercurrent of anguished melody, in particular on their 2013 album Teethed Glory and Injury.
Under his electronic solo moniker, WIFE, Kelly has, over the course of two previous releases, always tended to err more on the atmospheric end of that spectrum. His last LP, 2014’s What’s Between was released on Tri-Angle Records (Haxon Cloak, Forest Swords) and was by and large a spacious, melodious release with consistently lurking dark drones and occasional bursts of aggression (‘Salvage’). It is interesting then that on his latest EP Standard Nature, Kelly has returned to Profound Lore, the label that released AoP’s previous records and in turn has channelled a sound that swings tempestuously between percussive aggression and delicate harmony.
When not working on music, Kelly has worked as an environmental researcher and it was the influence of time spent in the rainforest of Costa Rica that informed much of the dynamic intensity of Standard Nature. Seeing first-hand destruction of the natural environment by loggers triggered a fascination with the juxtaposition between man, machines and nature, between that which is alive and that which destroys. This fascination is seen first hand in the video that coincides with the EP’s lead track ‘Glass Interruption’ which features footage taken by Kelly himself of that destruction of the 2016 wildfires in the area. The EPs cover art, designed by photographer Daniel Sannwald, depicts a forest being reflected by a machine, further adding to the importance of that interplay.
Throughout the EP it is this juxtaposition between destruction and restoration that lingers on the mind. Take the EP’s opening track ‘Wide Nine’, in which metallic keyboard melodies spear through the composition, while dense percussion clamours in and out, evaporating into the soundscapes hidden beneath, the newfound intensity and dynamic sense of alarm in contrast to previous releases becoming immediately apparent.
On the title track and on ‘Glass Interruption’, Kelly’s gentle, altered vocals jitter on top of shimmering keys and seismic percussion creating a chaotically beautiful contrast that is both comforting and exhilarating in equal measure. There is a violent beauty in the way he has sampled the sound of machines like chainsaws throughout this EP, a tingling head rush in the colourful bursts of sound that occur in ‘Native Trade’ and in the almost choral vocals that recur and flutter on the EP’s closer and gorgeous high-point ‘Lovelock’.
The biggest issue to be found within the release is one that is hard to avoid as a result of its rooting in dichotomy and dramatic dynamics. The quick shifts from quiet to loud, from lilting to violent mean that at times certain ideas never feel like they are fully realised or fleshed out. Just as the strings start to whisk us away in ‘Glass Interruption’ their emotional impact is ripped from us by the cataclysmic percussion that follows. While this is obviously a huge part of Standard Natures success, it’s hard to feel that if the movements were longer, and were given more room to develop, their significance may have a greater chance to imprint on the mind. Standard Nature is a fireworks display of a release, it’s just a pity it doesn’t last longer. Eoin Murray