History of Violence: an exploration of a serene forest as a site of unspeakable horror

Philip Sulidae, History of Violence, Belgium, Unfathomless, CD U19 (2014)

Daniel Crokaert of Unfathomless very kindly sent this CD as a bonus with the Kassel Jaeger and Andrea Borghi CDs I had ordered as Philip Sulidae is based in my home city (Sydney). As it happens, I am passing familiar with the case of the Belanglo State Forest murders of backpackers and hitch-hikers committed by the notorious Ivan Milat in the early 1990s which Sulidae’s release “History of Violence” refers to. The field recordings Sulidae made for this album were taken in the area Milat used as his hunting ground to kill his seven victims.

Despite the album’s title, the six tracks on offer are actually very quiet and the volume dial needs to be turned up fairly high (almost to the point of distortion) to catch all the sounds. Long passages of silence and an impersonal blank ambience surrounding the quiet drones and textures are highly oppressive and might be the most dreaded part of the whole recording. Surprisingly the sounds don’t attempt to approximate the soundscapes of Belanglo State Forest – there is no obvious birdsong, neither are there insect choruses, yet those are what Sulidae has recorded among other things – but seem much more machine-like, detached and remote.

You’re left feeling very uneasy and disquieted at the thought that someone could have taken advantage of naive travellers from out of state and abroad (a few of Milat’s victims were German) and left their bodies to decay and disappear in an otherwise serene and pristine forest environment. The final track “A façade” suggests that the peace and tranquillity of the forest may be masking some truly horrific secrets; or on the contrary, that what we imagine to be horrors are really our projections of our thoughts and feelings onto the forest itself, making it an unwilling accomplice, even victim, of Milat’s murders.

Disturbingly, since those original backpacker murders, other bodies of people killed since Milat’s sentencing and imprisonment have been found in the forest. For better and for worse, Belanglo State Forest has now come to occupy an unenviable place in Australian contemporary culture as a site of man-made horrors.

Also reviewed here in 2015 – Ed.

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