It’s half tradition, half tic. At every Ruin-Dredger gig, the lead-singer Jerome Daziel asks the same simple question. Sometimes he shouts it and demands a reaction from the audience. Sometimes he whispers it and ignores what the audience does. Depending on the country, he’s asked it in French, Italian, Greek, Russian, Georgian, Mandarin, Thai, Samoan and Quechua. He’s also asked it in complete silence, having written it across his chest and on the palms of his hands in phosph-ink, invisible when the lights are on, glowing ghoulishly when they’re turned off. Occasionally he’s asked it backwards. In English, the question runs like this: “And What Doth It Mean To Be Flesh?”
But you could see the whole of a Ruin-Dredger gig as asking the same searching thing. The band specialize in unusual frequencies that hunt out – and hum out – the resonances of the human body: the lungs, the bones, the blood. And their music sets up strange resonances in the mind. It’s both mindless and masterful, at once tearful and tyrannous. Sometimes it sounds like mathematics trying to come to life, and sometimes like mathematics trying to commit suicide. There’s a lot of science in their music, and a lot of silence too. “Star-clusters having tantrums,” is how one early review ran. “With occasional episodes of narcolepsy.” That mixture of sound and silence is mutually reinforcing: the sounds are sterner, the silence is sharper. They began their career with the albums Xoli-Hein (1992) and Pyramidion (1996), where they forged a series of griffs, or “gruff riffs”, that were often Ohrwürmer, or “ear-worms”, as German calls tunes that stick in your head. Even if you don’t want them to. But I’m not sure “tune” has ever been the right word for the music Ruin-Dredger create. It’s part industrial noise, part wolf-howl, part bat-twitter, but mostly “folded, fused, fissured, fractured, fidgety phonaesthesia.” And if you want to sample it, this album from the turn of the century is a good place to start.
What to call the album is one of the first puzzles it will set you. The band’s website usually calls it “a3” or “a3”; in interviews, the band themselves refer to it as “Triple-A” or “that A-fucker”. The second name comes from a plagiarism suit by the astro-music veterans Kargokkult that put Ruin-Dredger’s career on hold for nearly a year, 2002-3, and allegedly threatened to bankrupt their record-company. In the end the case was thrown out of court and even today some conspiracy-minded Dredge-heads claim it was cooked up for publicity between the ’Dredgers and the Kargonauts. The case might never have got as far as it did without that lunar cover for Triple-A, where the corroded letters of the band’s name and the album’s name hang above a lifeless moon-scape. Only it isn’t our moon. And it isn’t necessarily lifeless. Ruin-Dredger have a bee in their bonnet about the pre-biotic – the conditions necessary for the appearance of life. That’s what the first track on Triple-A, “Invention of the Cross”, is about: the chemicals that gave rise to life. And it literally has bees on it: the band sampled bees and bumblebees in flight and gathering nectar. They then altered the pitch and speed of the buzzing and made it sound both unearthly and unsettling. I’ve known people demand the track be turned off or skipped when it’s played to them.
But skipping track one of Triple-A is a bit like jumping from the frying-pan into the fire, because track two, “Seventh Sword”, is even more unearthly and even more unsettling. Bat-twitters hurtle through the speakers, falling from the ultra-sonic to the infra-sonic, rising in reverse, twisting, turning inside-out, mating, mutating and miscegenating. Then, as though the band have taken mercy on your ears and your mind, everything slows and soothes for track three, “Titanomachia”, which is often preceded in concert by the aforementioned carnal question: “And what doth it mean to be flesh?” This track is one of the last outings for the griffs of their early career: a slow, synth-based triple chord underlain by a sample of waves washing on an unknown shore. Track four, “Breathing Vacuum”, has also been known to provoke a “Turn it off!”, because the mumbling beneath the music is both sinister and sorrowful. You feel as though you should understand the words or, worse, that you will in your dreams. The chimes in the track are sinister too: they sound like a deep-sea, or deep-space, monster tapping on its fangs before putting them to famished use.
Which sets things up nicely, or nastily, for track five, “Scylla / Charybdis”. This is named after a pair of sea-monsters faced by Odysseus on his journey home from Troy and has been described by the ’Dredgers as a “battle-song”. The waves on “Titanomachia” are back, but bigger, badder and in a mood to fight. Daziel’s electronically treated voice wolf-howls a series of unintelligible questions, answered by patches of silence and gong-like drum-rolls. Track six, “Nyctogigas”, starts softly, builds back to the volume and violence of “Scyl/Char”, then breaks apart to allow the bats and bees of “Whilom” to steer your imagination out and up into the freezing star-light on the outer fringes of the solar system, where comets, shorn by the cold and dark, wait to swing sun-ward and regain their blazing locks. I like to listen to “Whilom” in the dark, wearing a blindfold, but then that’s the best way to listen to all of Ruin-Dredger’s music. Listening like that conjures visions and commands the viscera. Not an easy album, nor an unrewarding one, Triple-A isn’t their finest hour, if fan-polls and sales are any guide, but it’s an excellent guide to where they had come from and where they were about to go. If it’s the alpha-and-omega of their career, perhaps that explains the title: the “a” is the alpha (α) and the “3” an omega (ω) tipped on its side. I see it, or hear it, as a bridge between the ’nineties and the ’noughties: they’d give up the griffs and big up the bats, from then on, but they’ve never stopped asking that simple, sinister/sorrowful question of themselves and their listeners: “And What Doth It Mean To Be Flesh?”
a3 / a3 / Triple-A (S.R.K., 2000)
1. Invention of the Cross (5:26)
2. Seventh Sword (3:33)
3. Titanomachia (7:18)
4. Breathing Vacuum (9:03)
5. Scylla / Charybdis (6:11)
6. Nyctogigas (4:20)
7. Whilom (13:37)