Today we are going to talk a little about metal and a lot about electronic music. We are going to talk about literature and neuroscience. We are going to bite off more than we can chew. We are going to make a great big mess and we are not going to clean it up. Abandon all hope, ye who etc.
Most of us probably think of Jute Gyte as a metal band: the microtonal black metal project of the lone Adam Kalmbach. Many of us are probably only dimly aware, if at all, that he releases electronic music under the Jute Gyte moniker as well. This is because we are metalheads who read metal blogs and hang around on metal message boards. And because, while Jute Gyte has made something of a splash with metal critics, you will be hard pressed to find evidence of any such splash in the electronica blogosphere, if such a thing even exists. I discovered the electronic side of Jute Gyte some time in 2015, through the project’s bandcamp site. As with his metal releases—which I like to think of fondly as headache metal—I was immediately intrigued, although not immediately sold. My fascination was peripheral at first, and to the extent that this music is difficult to digest, it probably still is. It wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that I took the full plunge with Dialectics (2015), and from then on I struggled to find some coherent lens through which to view this oddball body of work, which essentially amounts to a mix of IDM, ambient and noise. It probably wasn’t until that winter that I realized there may be no coherent lens through which to view this oddball body of work—but I’m going to try anyway, because there’s nothing good on Netflix this week.
Taken as a whole, the electronic permutation of Jute Gyte is full of beats that skitter, stutter and self-destruct; structures as light as a whisper or as dense as a neutron star; melodies that are familiar at first before mutating beyond recognition; tricky grooves that induce vertigo and upset your sense of a lawful Spacetime; atmospheres that cause you to wonder what fucking planet you are on. As I understand it, Jute Gyte was a bedroom electronic project before it bifurcated into bedroom black metal. Early albums such as Apidya (2006) and Arakan (2007) bear little resemblance to later, more tuneful work; they are dominated by drone, noise (both harsh and unharsh), and percussive textures. In Kalmbach’s explanation of Arakan, which you can read on the bandcamp page or right here in a minute, we see the first detailed explanation of how these beguilingly abstract textures come about.
- “Most of the sounds in ‘Clawhead’ and ‘Arakan’ were created by converting non-audio files to audio.”
- “The various components of ‘Salgo’–basslines, drums, guitar and vocal loop—are unrelated to one another in tempo.
Music determined by non-musical sources; order (or its illusion) emerging from disarray. These, as time will prove, are two of the pillars of Jute Gyte’s aesthetic system. While Kalmbach gradually phases-out his use of non-audio files on later releases, his sort of abstract expressionist penchant for weaving together temporally and tonally unrelated voices flourishes. After a period of drone-centric ambient albums, we arrive at Faunscan (2011), where all of Kalmbach’s experimentation achieves greater coherence, and his obsession with the sourcing, recombining and juxtaposition of independently composed lines takes the lead. From here on, technical terms from music theory like “ostinati”, “polyrhythms”, “aleatoric”, “taleae” and “canon” begin to appear in his explanations of each album. (Anyone who has ever read the Toilet’s weekly Tech Death Thursday column already knows what a polyrhythm is. If you’re a pleb like me and are curious about the other terminology, get your Google on.) To listen to Faunscan is akin to watching a mad genius fuck around in his lab with substances you don’t quite understand; to read Kalmbach’s notes on his labwork is to confirm the brainy technique lurking behind the madness.
Theory aside, with Faunscan Jute Gyte delivers warm and playful electronica for the first time. The eponymous opening track plays out in classical IDM style, with glitchy beats and furtive yet emotive melodies—nothing too aggressively noisy or complex. “Aleshar” gives us some odd time signatures which shift and molt in spite of the cheerful melodies plucked out above. “Ypotrill” sounds like a tree full of robotic birds chirping quizzically at one another. Moments of overwhelming density are sparse, best represented by “Skerries”, which is the sound of a workshop full of toys coming to life and rising up to murder their makers.
On later album Volplane (2012), the IDM influence is still apparent, albeit further bent toward the avant-garde through a greater emphasis on independent layering. Consequently, this album loses some of the warmth of Faunscan, and the playfulness tends toward the sinister. Kalmbach explains a couple of the tracks as “several ostinati of different lengths, with pitches and dynamics determined aleatorically,” which are “voiced by a single instrument and interact polyrhythmically…” Of others, he says they “are built from ostinati that gradually transform timbrally, melodically and rhythmically.” In layman’s terms, what we’re hearing are increasingly disjointed percussion lines accompanied by cold, alien melodies and drones, all of it organized into forms which do not sound like organization—they sound like songs exploding into separate pieces, spinning into outer space and traversing the cosmic void in opposite directions.
Subsequent albums Witzelsucht (2012) and Metonym (2013) showcase a new technique: ROM hacking, which the internet tells me is method of editing or reprograming the original content of a video game—in this case the audio. As you might expect, displacing music and sounds from old 16-bit Sega games and applying them to Jute Gyte’s already unorthodox approach to composition yields some highly alienating results. Witzelsucht conjures lunar landscapes, interstellar silences and samplers gone haywire, while Metonym is overall a more sparse affair, where lonely beats burst in and out of the background void and murmuring melodies ponder the necessity of their existence. We drift further and further from the familiar sounds of humanity, toward some digital holocaust. Are we listening to music, or to a series of localized robotic receptors trying—failing—to assemble themselves into a fluid consciousness?
Jute Gyte’s most recent electronic album, Dialectics (2015), is in effect a culmination of the methods Kalmbach has employed so far. And also a step closer to utter abstraction. It bears the sophistication of its direct antecedents while almost coming full circle to the noisy and otherworldly drone of his earliest works. Or maybe it only feels that way because it has been a long journey to the end of this pixelated night and I am thoroughly depleted. Whether or not Dialectics is anything more than a refinement of established ideas, it is certainly a challenge. As the title suggests, the album is built around opposing or even clashing structures. There is so little harmonic resonance, such short decay to each instrumental moment, that you hear the silence between each utterance as much as you hear the utterance itself. And thus a great deal of each composition is given shape—composed—by negative space.
With his metal albums, Kalmbach uses black metal as a prism through which to break experiments with microtonality, polyrhythm and counterpoint; that is, he is primarily concerned with music. I’d argue that with his electronic music he is primarily concerned with machines. More important than the process of composition or the harmony of the ultimate results are the methods selected at the outset: the set of parameters which determine—mathematically—how each instrumental line or layer of sound will interact with the others. This is music that is truly programmed in the most technical sense of the word; Kalmbach becomes much less a composer than an engineer. Aesthetic choices such as pitch, tempo and timbre play a roll, but these choices are like window dressing for curious juxtapositions and bifurcations and metamorphoses (accidents, basically) which result more from the program itself than from any overarching artistic will. Each song is like a wind-up clock whose functioning depends entirely upon the way it was built; Kalmbach builds the clock, winds it up and lets it rip, and beyond that, whatever happens—happens.
Which brings us, I’d argue, to the question of free will. By relaxing his control over how each of his deterministically derived songs plays out, Kalmbach seems to call into question the extent to which he can even call himself their composer. Who is doing the composing? His mind itself is an interior hologram projected by the electrochemical processes of his brain, a presumably faithful recreation of an objective reality we can only hope actually exists. If every experience and every thought he has is determined prior by separate and unconscious processes in the brain, to what extent, if any, can he even claim to be himself? (I’m riffing on the philosophical work of Thomas Metzinger here—to whom we shall return shortly.)
In his 1999 novel The Elementary Particles Michel Houellebecq writes “The turbulence of a river flowing around the supporting pillar of a bridge is structurally unpredictable, but no one would think to describe it as being free.” The image of the river, a metaphor for human behavior, is part of a character named Djerzinksi’s thought experiment, designed to demonstrate how “belief in the notions of reason and free will . . . probably resulted from a confusion between the concepts of freedom and unpredictability.” Houellebecq is the grandfather of a relatively young literary genre known as depressive realism. As such, he views himself, humanity and the world with detached lucidity, freed from the common illusions which allow most people to lead sane and happy lives. That lucidity allows Houellebecq and, by extension, his characters, to accept that our choices, ostensibly the the result of free will, are determined by preexisting conditions, chief among them our genetic blueprint and past experiences which have shaped our minds.
I have no idea wherefrom Houellebecq derived his concept of human unpredictability (as a novelist, he is not obliged to site sources), but it would be echoed ten years later by philosopher and cognitive scientist Thomas Metzinger in his book The Ego Tunnel (2009). In great detail, and recounting numerous experiments in cognition and neuroscience (the results of which are surprising, to say the least), Metzinger discusses how the self is not one thing, and may not be anything more than a story our brains tell us in order to collate and make use of all the input gathered by our sensory organs. The contents of the self are not fixed, and can even be manipulated by what amounts to a three-dimensional optical illusion so that inanimate objects are perceived by the brain to be “part of the self”. Metzinger describes one experiment through which a person’s perception of agency or ownership can even be transferred fully onto an external inanimate model many feet away. Analyzing the results of these experiments and synthesizing them with the findings of neuroscience throughout history, he essentially reduces consciousness to a sort of virtual user interface for the physical brain.
I discovered Thomas Metzinger through an interview with Adam Kalmbach published by The Quietus (in which he also makes reference to Houellebecq). So it stands to reason that Metzinger and his questions about the nature of consciousness and self have had some effect on the work of Jute Gyte. Although of course I could be wrong. I am, after all, only the distant cousin of some dumb ape. I’m not sure if any of Kalmbach’s techniques are purely his own, or how many of them were inspired by the avant-garde composers he admires. In any case, he dwells in a musical realm where the agency of the composer is at least partially abstracted; where the self is accepted for the illusion it is; where ownership capitulates to cosmic accident. In the most beguiling of Jute Gyte’s electronic work, he seems merely to decide when to begin and end the recording; anything that happens in between just might be as surprising to him as it is to us. The results are almost purely cerebral in effect. I doubt he expects us to feel anything concrete or speakable while listening, only to hear (and if you do feel something you might want to check whether you are full of blood or that milky shit inside the androids of the Alien franchise…). We remain outside the work at all times, like sentient gnats perpetually bouncing off a mirror image of ourselves. We cannot get inside and we cannot put these sounds inside ourselves.
This has been my thank you to Adam Kalmbach for introducing me to the work of Thomas Metzinger, thinly veiled in a meandering attempt to understand the engaging and eternally mysterious electronic music of Jute Gyte. If I have misunderstood, well…see above, in r.e.: cousin of dumb ape.