Mark Van Hoen - Revenant Diary reviewed for The Wire January 2012 by Dan Barrow
Time is the alarming issue, the aspect of our lives most subject to the social pressures of the day. As average working weeks increase, we’re enjoined ever more to indulge in colour-supplement leisure activities (“get making those memories”, as a recent advertising slogan had it). In the face of systemic crisis, we’re haunted by the vague sense that time’s running out; simultaneously, we seem to have more of it than ever, in abundant archives, in multiplying ephemeral media of memory-inscription (Twitter, Facebook, blogs). Our memories press maddeningly in on the present, bursting into the body of music, at the very moment they threaten to disappear. As archivists carry on their pursuits (witness the hauntological barrel- scraping of the Found Objects blog and the continuing vogue for austerity chic), the quality of that time seems to matter less and less, just so long as it’s passed.
The latest solo album by Mark Van Hoen, an early member of Seefeel who has also worked as Locust, seems to come with the same set of conceptual baggage as all the nostalgia-swollen albums of recent years. But there is immediately a disturbing spark. The story goes: listening back through his archive, Van Hoen came across a track made in 1982 by his adolescent self, setting off memory recall of even earlier recordings; in turn he was encouraged to try a more primitive recording set-up of the kind he started out with, with a four-track recorder and minimal equipment. Potential pitfalls suggest themselves immediately – is this just soft-focus recreation of simpler times, the sonic equivalent of the midlife crisis car? From the first, though, Van Hoen avoids them. The beats are rough and ready, with cutting hi-hats and a loping kick like distant depth-charges, with frayed at the edges synth-strings and a female vocal as if imported from a horror film. Nowhere is the percussion sophisticated – as with his sometimes portentous 1990s work, Van Hoen occupies a corner of electronica untouched by Techno and House’s seductions. The mixing is queasy and out of joint, as if Van Hoen were adopting a deliberately broken language, feeling out the possibilities in stuttering, cracked versions of his familiar gestures. Notably, where Van Hoen sang on last year’s Where Is The Truth, here the voices are borrowed, though whether from vocalist Georgia Belmont or sampled is hard to tell
The same kind of primitivist impulse lurks behind much of the last few years’ fetishisation of analogue and modular technology – think of the clunky beats of Ekoplekz, or the laborious, semi-aleatoric methods of Keith Fullerton Whitman’s synth works. It not only evokes the relationship you have with music technology when starting out, and the directness with which you can alter sound, but in addition the physical particularity of analogue – tape recorders with their buttons that clunk and click, synths, drum machines, guitars with knobs for settings and tone, turntables and the motion of needles and record surfaces. All this filled the adolescence of musicians of a certain age. Van Hoen seems fascinated on The Revenant Diary by certain granular qualities of noise, the kind of roughened grain (usually applied by him to the voice) often arrived at by happy accident. This echo of adolescence is far more compelling than the dumbed down version that lies at the core of, say, chillwave, and far truer to the difficulty of teenage years. The perspective on the agonies of adolescence that comes with age is gained at the expense of its sense of possibility, of a meaning that saturates every second, and from which it is in reality inextricable. Van Hoen maintains this desire, this danger – adolescence as a wager, a roll of the dice.
His position is complicated by one of the narratives hiding behind The Revenant Diary: he was adopted as a child, a fact that became the sort-of subject matter of Where Is The Truth. “Don’t look back” warns the voice at the centre of the eponymous track, not because getting stuck in the past risks our facility to make ideas of the future (the traditional argument against nostalgia), but because its truth content is under question, if not hollowed out. It’s worth noting that Van Hoen, although working with his youthful set-up, doesn’t use particular textural or idiomatic signifiers in the manner of Hypnagogic pop. In this respect, the beatless tracks are what strike you here – “37/3d” is a minimal construction of static burbles, pointillist synth and backward, overlapping voice; “No Distance” is the kind of haunted sequencer architecture explored on Oneohtrix Point Never’s early releases; “Holy Me” is nine and a half minutes of solo multitracked voice, I Am Sitting In A Room as remixed by Oval. There’s a sense of suspension in these tracks, a glittering sadness, but also a refusal of the particularising pathos of meaning, which pins sound to a particular time.
Diaries seek to organise life; month after month, year after year, experience is recorded. The present nostalgia for analogue media and all its (as often as not, trashy) content is perhaps a longing for a moment when time could be experienced this way – coherent, slowly accumulative, the pseudo-cyclical passage of seasons and festivals. To be suddenly dispossessed of a past, to have what lies at the centre of your self-image disturbed, is something like the condition of Western society today, with the rug pulled from under it by economic and social crises. What is swiftly becoming clear is how useless nostalgia is in getting a grip on our own sense of time, not least because it leaves us with alienated figments of time, emptied of historicity. The Revenant Diary, confronting us with unremembered fragments of Van Hoen’s self, confounds all of that.