Had I not known that High Wolf is the alias of a mysterious French musician before listening to his new record Ascension, I would have called “bullshit.” This may be some of the least French-sounding music ever laid to tape. Those socially networked to High Wolf are told that he hails from the Amazon basin, but that’s a ruse too. Nothing provided here suggests any gestation from deep within the hot, steaming jungles, where every animal, insect, plant, and person wants to kill you and repurpose your remains within the ecosystem. It’s not muggy or moist, nor does it smell of quick decomposition. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like the “French” Mr. High Wolf – or is that Mr. Space Coyote? – spent a lot of time in the American southwestern desert regions, among the Native people there, partaking in ritual events and spiritual illumination. As such, you’re more likely to find sand in your moccasins than stagnant water or, um, a baguette. Seriously, that last one happened to me once.
Let’s get straight on it – Ascension smacks of the American Southwest because of its rhythmic tribalism, and while this characteristic is indicative of native cultures throughout the world, the signature tablas and other percussion instruments, combined with guitar, analog synthesizer, and various loops and effects, call to mind swirling space jams that truly make sense under the huge clear night sky surrounded by cacti and red rock formations. There’s no jungle canopy to be found on this record. There’s just space, lots of it, and a feeling of joyous reverence beneath the night sky, the only witness to the ceremony and celebration of earth and nature. Oh, and that fistful of peyote should start kicking in any time. That should help.
The layers of rhythm that begin “The Meeting of the Three Seas” do little to dispel my hunch on the influence of Native American culture, as you really can’t help but strip to the waist, apply the proper paint to your face and chest, and kick up a cloud of dust around the bonfire roaring in the open wilderness. As with the rest of Ascension, “The Meeting” is a study of steady build, as layers of instruments are added to the background and a rudimentary guitar scale emerges from the clatter, and without much variation it collapses in a heap before it hits the nine-minute mark. The textural changes in the shorter “Diego” are more pronounced, as more tribal rhythms give way to the shimmering delayed guitar, the ethereal wisps suggesting the intervention of spirit animals, or some other guide. I think my spirit animal would be something cool, like a snake or a bobcat. Actually it would probably be something lame – like a ladybug. Yeah, my spirit animal’s probably a ladybug.
“Cloud Head” signals the passing of its subject overhead – altocumulus, perhaps, in advance of a cold front – until it stops midsong and shifts compeletely into a dour black thundercloud. But it doesn’t matter – that great big blue sky dotted here and there is just as vast and beautiful as the lightning shooting from dark mass to dark mass, in the distance, slowly moving toward you. And sure – something like the restrained and meditative “Solar System Is My God” is perfect for a planetarium laser light show, but artists like High Wolf are rendering that descriptor cliché. You should rather actually go out to the desert, and actually stand illuminated by the visible arms of the Milky Way. (You know, because they’re actually visible without all the light pollution blocking them from view.) I’m done with planetariums. You’ll actually see visions in the clear night sky in the middle of the desert during a mescaline haze, and it will change you – get out there and be reborn. That’s where “Fire in My Bones” comes in, its Panda Bear-ish vocal samples and instrumental gauze glacially shift in texture, as the heat from the great spirit’s transformation emanates from your chest, spreading through your limbs and flowing outward in a pulsing red glow. You’ve been enlightened, my friend. You’ve ascended.
High Wolf trafficks in a mystic psychedlia that currently has the blog-n-roll set’s seal of approval, along the lines of Sun Araw or Raccoo-Oo-Oon or whatever else happens to strike the fancy of the Not Not Fun or limited-edition-cassette/CDR/LP-release crowd. And yeah, it’s pretty cool. So don’t let anyone tell you these self-described “pyramidal meditations,” a descriptor nicely mirroring the upward focus of the album, are anything other than well-executed psychedelic excursions – the hype machine is ready with the next post-fi, chillcore, tapedeck-tribal, or glo-wave buzzword. But we’re not that lazy here at Critical Masses, right? No – we’re telling you what to like. We’re the hitmakers.
RIYL: Sun Araw, Forest Swords, Panda Bear