The glassy fog of distortion is melting me into a crowd that
nods and undulates (rough – sweet – yes) in the dark and
choral, electric, underwater,
this sound, this sound
I didn’t know much about Russian Circles, but before the gig I could have told you:
V likes them (and V asked me, and V drove me two hours across Switzerland and along a lake in burning sun to get there),
and V’s friend soundtracks his snowboarding videos with them (The White Gold Rush, he calls himself, falling headlong from aeroplane to powder, swooping and cresting and defying death),
and they were post-metal and they would be loud.
I grew up in a classical household deep in the French countryside. There were no pop albums in the house until I was eleven or twelve – no synth, no drums, no bass – & the first one I bought for myself was Damien Rice’s O. the year before I left for Cambridge.
I was unafraid of jumping ship, unafraid of the unknown. I was an expat of a country I’d never lived in – America – and a citizen of a country I’d never quite belonged – France. Standing at the brink of adulthood I felt ready. Ready to fledge, and build, and fit somewhere. England, I thought, and leapt.
New shores: it was beautiful, there, by the sandstone and the spires and the greening river. Every part of it magnetic,
and some parts of me crumpling in response, as my myth of finding or fitting in came painfully and suddenly into view. I’d never, I’d never, I’d never. Written an essay in English, kissed, smoked. Everything was sharp and bright, a play I didn’t know the words to. I wanted so to know.
So I learned. Shapeshifting, bridge-burning. There would be a few more of those to come.
I learned the words for things. I learned what drinks I drank, and how to order them. I learned what I could do with my lungs, with my legs, with my tongue.
There are shortcuts, it turns out, to belonging.
I get out of the car, scrabble for comfort. Wearing black, check. Boyfriend’s a drummer, check, but patriarchy, pandering – still,
opening doors, hand in mine. Jack and coke. Not that coke. Kajal, but no studs, not enough tattoos,
Enough. I’m pale and I like to drink, so I figure I’m alright. Peach emoji, fire emoji. Besides, V and I have just had abricotine and climbed a hill covered in brambles: moonshine – adrenaline – endorphins help to mirror a good self back at me.
Still, I am nervous. Everyone has beer and almost everyone is German, and I understand that these things are not prerequisites for enjoying post-metal but I am regretting the fact that my admittedly black romper has very small pineapples printed on it.
Invisibility, I quickly found, is the key to this feeling I seek. Blending, in musical terms. When I found Magdalene Chapel Choir, I didn’t know the words, the prayers, how to read evensong pointing, but
second soprano was a performance of belonging, and by extension was belonging: part of a candlelit tide. Black dot, black line. Holding something up; being held in. The tight second that rubs and wavers, organic and alien – in the air and deep in the throat.
Playing a version of yourself like a musical instrument.
Choral singing is explicitly about absorption: becoming an essential part that vanishes into a coherent whole.
Or: when the sound starts, it doesn’t matter.
Russian Circles is: cloth being woven, bodies moved, patterns repeating and repeating, pitch and rhythm varying, meeting halfway, circles (yes) of chord changes and triplet syncopation.
the same, the same,
the same force as the best, grimiest, loudest electronica I’ve been swept up in time and time again
the same as organ, choral waves
(This blows my mind for a minute; not that I love Russian Circles instantly but that they feel so familiar.) The geological, meteorological darkness. The sheer force.
Carried by the crush of bodies, another Jack-and-coke, my German more fluid. Lost in the tide, the rhythm, I am blissfully invisible. The oystershell of the bass drum shining like a womb, all the long hair, loose shoulders, the darkness,
Loops/circles: in Cambridge crit terms, the psychology of expectation,
the force that drives rhyming poetry, also driving rhythm and anticipation (the drop – the chorus – the slamming return to the first beat) – both mathematical and musical.
Bodies move with it, brain dissolved,
In school they taught us that raves made your heartbeat speed up until it fit into the music, rushed with the music, 1–2, 3–4, ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk, until it killed you.
I start writing this in my head about halfway through the set, heart rushing, exhilarated with pure sound – no, filthy sound, grainy sound – about performance and identity and music scenes.
Swept up in noise and whiskey I think, just for a minute, all music is the same! (Fire emoji! Lightbulb emoji!) But it isn’t that, quite. After all, post-rock is the meeting point between rock and electro, or the sublimation point – how many Kelvins? – the sweet dissolution into sound. It knows it. It does not need to be told.
So instead, I think about how I feel. I think about people who make sound, and people who absorb sound. Why I wore black, why my heart swam, why I belonged. Kissing – swimming – signal-to-noise
and something falls into place like a bone locking into joint.
1–2, 3–4, 1234,
My anxiety makes me feel raw and exposed almost constantly, surging with adrenaline as if I am a hair’s breadth from failing at any time. (At what? At being in the world, I suppose.) Impostor syndrome, if you will, on a holistic scale. Every day in the lion’s den.
Absorption brings me some relief.
Eagles and snakes, skulls and cityscapes, grey and dark and gold,
I’m thinking about band t-shirts, Russian Circles t-shirts specifically, and how V’s friends used to call each other up – on landlines – when they were young meeting for beers to make sure they weren’t all wearing the same one. Something funny in that intersection: the cocksure, performative fandom, nerves and the care taken. Shirts as signifiers, Circles as belonging.
Other than choral, back in 2006, I was practising (skin of my teeth) modes of belonging. Clinging to indie boys with band t-shirts and indie knees. Too raw and young to know you could ask people to gigs or go alone. My accent a transatlantic chameleon mess – uncanny on answerphones – trying to disappear.
Oxbridge manicpixie, I guess. Virgin, tee-total. Still –
knowing how to count the beat: knowing it with my thighs and my knees: time signatures sweeping me up in tides of sound, any sound. First dubstep, first d&b. (Playing yourself like a musical instrument.) The electric crush of bass pulling you floor-wards, tangling heartrates. Wait wait wait wait
slam. Kicking off my heels, jumping up and down barefoot in Kambar – beams greasy with anticlimb paint, speakers so enormous they made your head shake and blur – and my gin-and-tonic glowing blue in the blacklight.
And other absorptions. Kissing A crushed up against speakers: bass throbbing all through our bones, painting our skin with music. Disappearance into noise.
How for an hour it didn’t matter that I wasn’t Cambridge, that I didn’t know how things worked, that I didn’t know the right words for the right kinds of music. Swimming deep undersound, all tongue and heart, mind cleansed.
Absorption is a question of meeting or melding points. One: other. History: present. Self: water: lovers: music. Music and music and the weird ways history draws Venn diagrams.
One wide circle or spectrum – rock (steel and catgut, verse and chorus).
One other wide circle or spectrum – electronica (wires and dials, loops and drops.)
The former becomes interested in the techniques of the latter. Finds a place made of timbre and texture. Overlap: ⚭: the structure and spirit is
raw, dirty, huge; the grain of the music, like wood, unpolished.
Indie bends at the knees; metal bends at the waist. Both at the neck.
Sometimes at the end of evensong – crying out Howells, blasphemous, my heart trembling – my knees would be soft as postorgasm.
When I dip beneath the March-cold surface of Lake Geneva (or the Cam, or Lake Michigan, or) the absorption extends
water to: body to: nameless shore,
I: a part of every molecule, and the sky reflecting down bright and empty, the stillness and the slow tug towards the ocean. My body vanished, and my body the most important thing in the Milky Way. (Like sex, like choral singing.)
I crave this more than anything in the world.
The Cam, we’d go in fully-clothed and half-cut under bridges, from the punts into the warm and the weeds, drinking warm dessert wine after choir lunches, losing watches and swigging Weil’s disease. Ten years ago now.
It hurts to remember,
but as I sat on the Eurostar back home the first time I felt physically sick with the French language –
when what I wanted to shut out had nothing to do with the place and everything to do with not wanting to give up on this new (skin of my teeth) sense of belonging. A young-adult sense of self that I read as a Cambridge one.
I’ve always been a chameleon – it’s how I’ve survived these uprootings – but it took years to realise the shifts weren’t total, weren’t exclusive. That if I wanted to belong to one circle, one orientation, one language, one scene, I didn’t have to give up on the others.
Do you know how hard it is to headbang to math rock? Moving with the sound, so I’m counting in my head to seven and then to eight, 1234567, 12345678. Inelegant. I want so hard to fit, to shine,
Sleight of hand: selves performed a little more casually, a little more confidently. Lorraine – Cambridge – Edinburgh – the Cotswolds – Geneva – London – Geneva: or, plenty of practice. Ten years older, the knowledge that no-one is watching, keeping tabs on your shapeshifts, checking for authenticity.
Still, the punk/hardcore/metal scene in Geneva is a more difficult shift – on the surface – than any I’ve known: doorless steel toilets and crust punks with rottweilers vs pineapple romper – and yet
(comfort in inklines and V’s hand in mine)
when Brutalist takes the stage: signal-to-noise – blue light fanning out over their shoulders – I know I’m home. Music so loud and rough it shakes the ribcage, rattles the heart. The Venn says rock, but I know this noise. Its heart lies in my bones.
The bass growls like a lawnmower, like a David Lynch soundtrack. Arhythmic. Orchestral. The heart follows.
The French word for layers or waves of sound is ‘nappes’ – the same word as phreatic,
Such richness to be embraced – a little more conscious (ten years) that I don’t need to lose myself entirely in performance: that I am still choral, still wild swimmer, but kajal-gin-tattoos and post-metal, too. That there is space for all of it, and without shame. Offering myself a little distance, a little forgiveness, a little power
Car window, last week: the sharp rosegold of the Alps flickers into view. Sunset gradient, powerlines, contrails like comets. Sipping the backwash of beers named after Jean Calvin.
Russian Circles in an hour and we’re all wearing leather jackets, V’s friends and I: such a performative shorthand it makes me laugh. And maybe that’s the key, to see your separate inseparable selves, your fittings and unfittings, and accept them as funny, as heart-wrenching, as wholly yours.
To see your malleability as your essence, as your power, as a gift.
This is a home now. V’s hand in mine. Above all else, myself on my side. My tattoos are: two crossing inklines on my ankle, two parallel on my arm. Circles signifying – or claiming, or reminding me towards – coherence.
Not stable, not still, but fitting together in flux,
shifting tides, waves lapping, mirroring the mountains and skies,
(same noise, same waters, same woman)
circles and circles, wild and evensong, quiet and loud
to lock into place like a bone – disappear,
and inside, I do, I do.
Elodie Olson-Coons is a ghostwriter and editor currently based in Switzerland. Her writing has featured in 3:AM Magazine, Music & Literature, The Island Review, [PANK], Paper Darts, Lighthouse, and in a book by Indigo Ink Press. She tweets @elllode.