Out of Pride and Madness Wrought

Polish musician Zenial (i.e. Lukasz Szalankiewicz) here with Lancelot’s Delusions (SUBLIME RETREAT RECORDS SR009) …I like the way these four long strange drones sort of amount to a “concept” album describing a dream-state, or a long journey…or even the deluded state of a medieval knight, hinting at a semi-story idea which is used as a metaphor here. But the record wasn’t necessarily conceived as one whole thing, nor indeed was it recorded or performed that way.

Its conception, and origins, are a bit distributed…one piece here was originally a podcast in Ukraine in 2020 for the Cyber Pills festival, while another was realised in France in 2021, as an online performance with the help Art Zoyd Studios. (BTW I love the band Art Zoyd, superb overwrought French art music from the 1980s – I had no idea there was a studio created in their honour.) Cumulatively, a thread or several threads starts to emerge as you wander from one end to the other of this uncanny droner, and equally the booklet of colour photograph-collages amounts to a mini-movie pursuing its own bizarre narrative, but cleverly Zenial manages to keep conventional linear ideas, and plain common sense, at bay with his deflective music. I suppose the title track could be reckoned as the main event…there are multiple field recordings, including many chattering voices, overlaid and swirling around in a slow music mix which consists simply of a wavering, rise-and-fall sound…through this simple device, the listener is unsettled, charmed, kept off-balance and bewildered, all in the space of 20 minutes.

We have to repeat that “Lancelot” is a metaphor, but I can’t help perceiving a latter-day Don Quixote in this sonic murk, one who is far less forthright than the literary original, less convinced by his own half-remembered moral code, and one who is – like many of us – too easily distracted by the many forces at play in the modern world. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s simply that we all end up lost, unsure what we’re doing in life. This particular piece attains more focus as it develops – the field recordings drop away, the electronic tones become simpler, as if suggesting there is more resolution awaiting us at the end of the journey; but in reality, there isn’t, and life has no simple explanations to offer us. The ‘Orion +’ item is even more intriguing; if ‘Lancelot’s Delusions’ had some equivalence with a dream, this one takes a wide-awake view of life and has a lot more in the way of stark images, abrasive sounds, and suggestions of abrupt, unwanted movements in a strange place. Zenial – who remains pretty close-lipped about his work here generally – will admit that the ‘Orion’ piece has something to do with looking at the constellations, but he extends this into straightforward remarks about looking and listening at everything in the neighbourhood. “I can only see what my unarmed eye lets me see”, is his frank admission of defeat, implying that there’s actually a lot more to see, if only we had the right appartus. There’s also a strong undercurrent of worry and uncertainty for the future here, hardly surprising as it was composed right at the start of the pandemic. With its vague sounds and perplexing collage method, the piece remains very understated, yet there’s a hard core of bitter truth that won’t go away.

Also here: the queasy and muddled ‘How Can I Be Sure’, the most explicitly surreal and dreamlike of the set, which sets out the composer’s stall and wrong-foots the listener at every turn with its unresolved shapes and musical sketchiness that never goes where you think it will; and ‘Urban Legends’, which follows the trend of the album with its technique of starting out with real-world location recordings, and gradually displacing them with inhuman, eerie, electronic tones. This one took me a little time to get truly “into” the space that Zenial proposes, but I found it a very worthwhile sojourn and one I shall revisit in future, mindful of the underpinning metaphor of the knight who has forgotten the purpose of his quest.

I recall we have encountered Zenial as far back as 2003, with a CDR release on the Simple Logic Records label; nice to see how his work is progressing in this imaginative direction. From 21st December 2021.