We haven’t heard Jozef Van Wissem since his 2008 album A Priori for the American Incunabulum label, which is perhaps surprising as he’s quite prolific in terms of live performances and tours, solo records, collaborations, and film soundtrack projects. He’s here today with a new record for same label called Behold! I Make All Things New (INCUNABULUM RECORDS INC027-028), composed and recorded during the ever-present lockdown period between 2019 and 2021, when he was also living away from New York, where this odd self-taught Dutch musician has made his home, due to restrictive Trumpian policies.
Van Wissem remains dedicated to exploring the lute, an unusual instrument in any setting nowadays, and is determined to cast his own compositions and playing within a modernist idiom – while still remaining true to his own classical precepts, and the Renaissance origins of the instrument. We noted in 2010 his extraordinary gift for precision in plucking the strings of this challenging device, and that skill is here in evidence, now burnished with a further 14 years of diligent practice as he hones his craft. He’s now acquired much acclaim among fellow visionaries and outsiders he’s worked with – Jarboe, for instance, surely a musical marriage made in Jan Van Eyck heaven – and won his spurs as a unique, one-of-a-kind artist, carrying a hard-won badge of originality. Indeed, some supporters regard him as a hallmark of musical authenticity through his adherence to this ungainly acoustic instrument, at a time when “digital everything” is the watchword in many a recording studio.
He also seems to have cultivated a very distinctive appearance, with his black hat, suit and shiny shoes, his long hair, and the slightly Gothic touch afforded by his studded leather wristlets. On the A Priori record I noted the symbolic engravings on the cover artworks and wondered if he was going to travel down the path of Alchemical emblem books and related esoterica, but today’s record is entirely titled with New Testament excerpts and quotations from the mouth of Jesus, and musically it represents, for him, a “back to basics” approach showcasing the “minimal neo-classical style” of his earliest records. The music may be enhanced here and there by electronics, but most of the time it’s just Jozef Van Wissem moving his sturdy, leathery fingers and producing stern, foreboding, but richly melodic music; even when performing his own take on the gavotte form, he still sounds rather stern and grim, casting one disapproving and baleful eye over his audience.
This rum cove strikes me as a time-traveller who went back to Renaissance Europe to study the lute, then stopped off at a 19th-century undertakers in Chicago on his way back. How long before he gets a phone call to appear on the next Sunn O))) album? Available in LP and CD form; from 21 February 2022.