Once upon a dark and glum time, also known as the beginning of the dank ‘90s, a bunch of enigmatic German misfits got together, formed a band called Bohren & der Club of Gore, and started playing music that was quite novel for its period. Crossing over Sabbathian doom metal, drone, jazz, and ambient music, they were creating excruciatingly slow and atmospheric stuff driven by distorted saxophones and sparse rhythms; something that would later become known as doom or noir jazz. Many other bands followed in their footsteps, The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble/The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation and Dale Cooper Quartet & the Dictaphones most notable among them, that with each step further developed and drove the style away from metal and towards experimental/electronic sideways. In that context, the début from Insect Ark, the one-woman project of bassist and multi-instrumentalist Dana Schechter, in many ways might as well act as the missing link that, by reincorporating guitar riffs into the sound, reacquaints the genre with its original metallic roots.
Whether Insect Ark really was inspired by the aforementioned bands or whether the style exhibited on Portal/Well rose in a sort of a vacuum remains uncertain and somewhat mystifying. The perceived depth and impact of the music varies greatly from listen to listen, depending on the mood of the soul subjected to the grasp of Schechter’s tormented, anguished sounds. The idioms that she entertains, the layers upon layers of synths and programming coupled with steel guitar wails, all paint a gloomy and haunted picture, just like the one usually found in doom jazz, but the unsurprisingly dominant and driving, distorted, pulsing bass (Schechter is, let’s not forget, a bassist) and the subdued but heavy guitars push Insect Ark towards a space of its own, a comfortable distance away from said peers. This renders the material found on Portal/Well more listenable, requiring less concentration, but also ups the ante on the foreboding and doomsaying facets of the music. In other words, it will suck you into its hopeless world brimming with despair even if you were having one of the best days of your life, a day filled with bouts of eating ice cream and listening to Jørn’s Dracula [Best. Day. Ever. – Steel Druhm].
My biggest gripe with Portal/Well stems from the fact that the material just doesn’t feel right as a whole and certain songs feel grouped on purpose based on common traits. The first two tunes, “Portal/Well” and “The Collector,” are really enjoyable, noirish but dynamic pieces in which the slow programmed drums drive the flow forwards with a consistent and constant pace. These cuts are relatively lively, enveloped in buzzing guitars and eerie, ghostly screeches of Schechter’s steel guitar. But then, as signaled by the short, abstract, and almost intermission-like “Lowlands,” the record takes a turn. Atmosphere becomes a priority, guitar riffs and bass lines take a step back, while electronic effects take the stage. “Octavia,” “Taalith,” and “Low Moon” are tracks that come closest to the paradigm of doom jazz, with “Low Moon” going even a step further, ditching drums and traditional songwriting altogether and opting instead for a modern classical, minimalist approach. Among these, a solitary, more concrete tune “Parallel Twin” stands, that doesn’t manage to reignite the intensity presented by the first few tracks.
While these cuts are still good, they pose a different set of benchmarks and the artist feels caught outside the zone of what she does best. The effect might have been different if the rhythmically involving songs and ambient pieces were intertwined in a different manner, avoiding breaks in the flow of the album. As it is, the structures and arrangements don’t feel well-defined as parts of a whole and instead go for broke in functioning as stand-alone miniatures, dismantling the overall coherence. Just by looking at the transition between the almost catchy standout “The Collector” and the next couple of tracks, something is evidently amiss. It will be interesting to see where Schechter takes this project now that she’s joined by drummer Ashley Spungin and in which way a live drummer will shape Insect Ark’s sound.
Despite all this, it’s a solid album. If willing, its shortcomings are easily transformed into interesting traits that make the music all the more special. But remember, if you decide to give this a spin, try to choose an appropriate, melancholic moment. Stuff such as this is best enjoyed when you’re at your lowest. No happy-sunshine-puppies nonsense allowed.