Panama Canal Left-Hand Path: serene rainforest ambient dub noise hides a dark historical secret

Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, Panama Canal Left-Hand Path, US, Hospital Productions, cassette set (2019)

One of many projects of the highly prolific experimental / noise musician / poet / multi-media artist Dominick Fernow, active since 1997 and perhaps known to TSP readers in the past through his noise project Prurient and his label Hospital Productions, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement (hereafter RSE because it is a mouthful, even for my fingers which have no mouths) represents Fernow’s foray into the ambient dub environment with the aim of revealing past histories of brutalities and atrocities inflicted on people by colonial imperialist powers in what apparently appear to be serene rainforest tropical paradises. This album, the fifth full-length recording made so far since RSE formed in 2012, is a reference to the French attempt to build the Panama Canal in the 1880s, in which 22,000 labourers died from disease and accidents, the investment in the construction eventually going bankrupt and the project not resumed until it was taken over by the Americans in the early 20th century and finally finished in 1914. Though the Americans had the benefit of knowing about malaria and its causes by then, the US project was still not without its costs: whole villages still had to be uprooted and its inhabitants expected to find homes elsewhere or work on the project for minimal money and in appalling conditions that cost many people lives and limbs.

The album sounds very serene, even playful in most parts, but a slight underlying feeling that the tall forest canopies, the lianas, the chirping birdlife and other animal and plant noises are covering up something dreadful that happened long ago and which is buried deep under the soil. As the music progresses, it becomes ever more hypnotic and seductive, especially on “Demons Tour the Canal” with its insistent mechanical rhythms and background washes, the constant frying sounds that could be continuously spraying water or burning grass. The pair of tracks that go by the rather pretentious title “The Mountain didn’t want to be cut and the Mountain fought back” are noisier tracks combined with what could be naturally based field recordings or electronic recreations of the sounds of nature: these are very focused pieces of music that constantly call your attention to the hidden historical horrors and examples of past human arrogance and folly in presuming that Nature can be made to do human bidding.

This is often very eerie music, beautiful and hypnotic in parts, demanding to be accepted on its own terms. For dark noise music, this is very focused and well-thought out and crafted work even if the Panama Canal narrative behind it is not that clear.

The three-cassette set comes with another RSE recording “Simulated Thunderstorm”, a continuous mix of past RSE cuts made by Phillipe Hallais and edited by Paul Corley. This one-track recording doesn’t offer much greatly different in style from “Panama Canal …” except perhaps there are more beats and a lot more rain showers. It’s nice music but a little disappointing with more emphasis on steady rainshowers and really no tropical thunderstorms and heavy downpours.