I. Searching for the Sexy Siren Sound of the Night
It’s hard to overpraise the incredible invention that English musical outfits like Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack managed to create in their mid-to-late 1990s heyday. The invention wasn’t necessarily the Trip-Hop genre, which is now fairly broad and loosely-defined. Rather it was a subtle thing that came along with it, intertwined, but broader and more universal. It was a mood and a musical language that powered Trip-Hop but was not restrained to the genre – a way of arranging sounds that somehow distilled the essence of the night.
But not just any night. Those nights. Those parched and whirling phantasmagorias of drugs, sex, paranoia and surreal joy. The city’s neon arms, spread and beckoning, inducing one to chase after them in wool coats and clicking heels, mesmerized, wanting more than anything to cross over into that intoxicating neon joyride – the underworld that churns as the world sleeps, subject to its own rules, offering episodes of manic delight and frenetic excess, underpinned by the bracing risk of soul-shattering loneliness and hideous violence.
Where many musicians have striven to brushstroke in the contours of the day, tracing the musical night seemed a less urgent goal. However, as time went on, the black musical traditions seemed to be the ones converging on midnight. The wild, sweat-soaked fever dreams of experimental Jazz and the plaintive twangs and howls of the Blues closed the distance in one era, while the pulsing rhythms of Dance, Rave, House and its sequenced cousins carried the sensibility forward in later decades. Also homing in were the darkened bedroom seductions of R&B, as well as Dub – the sound of Reggae music reverberating on after the sun has set.
But still some essential, unifying stroke was missing, and that stroke turned out to be the dark, viscous advent of Trip-Hop.
One can hear the initial apex of this brooding, sexy, nocturnal sound on Mezzanine, Portishead and Maxinquaye among others. After the millennium, Trip-Hop’s syrupy dark matter spread outward and diffused, watered down into smoother sounds by Hooverphonic, Morcheeba, Zero 7 and the like. The Chillout and Downtempo subgenres became legion, charming listeners with Trip-Hop’s musical richness and slow tempos, while bleeding away the earlier music’s tense, threatening undertones.
However, some modern practitioners are still keeping the faith. Burial’s desolate, enveloping dubscapes owe much to the pioneers. The Weeknd’s depraved Toronto netherworld harkens back plainly to the dim, smoky hallways and acrid early morning comedowns of 1990s London.
Though they are rooted more deeply in Rock and Shoegaze, Norwegian band Serena-Maneesh also drink deeply of the Bristol sound. On “Ayisha Abyss,” they have gone to extremes, and crafted a dense, engulfing document of atmosphere and mood, one which exemplifies all the things that made Trip-Hop so hypnotic and revolutionary when it first emerged.
II. Finding “Ayisha Abyss”
You feel it before you hear it – the gut-throb, the thrumming, resonating nocturne. It is an invitation and a warning, exhaling chemical vapors that conjure wild, seductive beauty and merciless, lurking danger in the same breath. Neon colors swirl kaleidoscopic down the boulevard, the night-bazaar alive with movement and the human voice. Yellows, greens, pinks and blues reflect from sunglasses and the sleek luxury cars that are being busily disappeared by valets in blood-red neckties. Everyone is here for the same reason. To burrow in and find the beating heart of the night. That place where alcohol splashes and burns, where altered states are worshiped at the altar. Where mating dances strobe by as haunted freeze frames – impressions of suspended necklaces and earrings, whirling hair, closed eyes and flashing grins, postures that silently scream: come hither. Ties loosened, miniskirts riding up, looks full of meaning and possibility in this sacred playacting, our ornamented pleasure vessels squeezing past one another, wrapped in personas – some thick, perilous and cold, others porous enough to intimate the warmth and vulnerability of the soul inside…
This is not your car, but you are driving it. You are following another car because – according to a moist and sultry whisper delivered specially to your ear – someone inside tried to slip something into a friend’s drink. You are still halfway out of body. The taillights of the white Lexus leave luxurious motion-blur contrails in your vision. The road seems to rise and fall beneath your car’s suspension with an organic, sensuous roll, like the hips of that dark-eyed beauty you communed with on the dance floor…
“There he goes, he’s turning left,” your passenger hisses. His voice seeming to bubble up from somewhere underwater. This is the first thing he has said to you tonight, and you don’t even know his name. He reaches out and turns up the car stereo. You can feel the overdriven, angular bassline supplant the engine, seeming to take control of the car, to gently supply the vectors necessary to navigate to the center of this dimlit world. Drum clatter rides loosely atop, clicking, clacking – grooving and syncopating the descent. You hear whoops and yelps from behind you and remember the girls. They begin to vibe to the rhythm, writhing like a backseat full of snakes, an intriguing blur of limbs, bright lipstick, sequins and Italian leather in the corner of your eye. You are not sure if you are really here, and you don’t know where here is. You are liberated and you are terrified, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Don’t lose him.” your passenger’s voice seems to be coming from the stereo now, suspended amid the other clipped and phantom babble, amongst the detuned and twisted orchestra of what once could have been pianos, strings, guitars – diurnal instruments that have no language, no scales for this colored fluorescent milieu into which you are plunging headlong, following this white rabbit into perpetual night.
Hands from the back seat reach out and caress your ears and neck. You are going into the black hole. Into the sex of it all, the alien thickness, the mystery and paranoia and freedom and taboo of these shadow hours, a masquerade too volatile to exist in the bleak and sober rays of the sun’s revealing.
You are driving out onto a loading dock, alone now with the car you are following. The pretense has melted away – they know that you will follow no matter where they lead. As you weave through a maze of shipping containers the thrum from the stereo relents, the scraping machinery, oddball percussion and orphaned radio transmissions receding back to their dimension. You pull around a corner and see that you have arrived at a building on the water, Black and silent, clashing with the brightly festooned yacht moored next to it. A fanfare of hideous house beats and ghastly keening jumps from the stereo, casting the scene in a lurid light. The white Lexus’ occupants have emerged, and they are waiting for you. You open the car door and emerge, ready for the next act of this dream, this dissociated freedom of obliterated identity. You can hear music coming from the yacht, a chanteuse’s disengaged yet lovely voice floating over an upbeat but smeared rock discord, all of it echoing out over the laser-lit water. You walk toward it together – the girls, the passenger, the white Lexus group – and fall in to manic chatter and suggestive preening, tensions pushed aside in the hope you all share, the hope that the night will stretch on forever and obviate the day, keeping the sun from ever rising again.