Where the Mandrakes Grow
Roto Visage is the solo project of California-based musician Jason Popejoy, and Where The Mandrakes Grow is the first Roto Visage CD release, following a number of CD-Rs and free download releases. As many musicians can testify, it's awfully hard to get people to pay attention to download releases, since there are so many of them about, but hopefully having a 'proper' physical release on a label with a solid reputation like Autumn Wind Productions (whose roster also includes artists such as Black Seas Of Infinity, Emit, Vomit Orchestra and Kaniba) will encourage more people to listen to Roto Visage, as Where The Mandrakes Grow certainly represents a new level of accomplishment and sophistication for this project. Where The Mandrakes Grow is conceptually based on auto-erotic asphyxiation - the title refers to an old folk belief that the mandrake plant grew from the spilt sperm of a hanged man. This macabre subject matter is aptly reflected in the disturbing monochrome photomontage cover images by Anastasia Sarandou, a flickering, tenebrous melding of twisted tree roots, mangled body parts, disembodied eyes and X-rays of skeletal structures. The album contains eight tracks spread over 64 minutes, with a break in the middle between two separate suites signaled by an interlude entitled 'The Death Of Kotzwara'. The first section of the album is dominated by minimalist dark ambient and cold drones, with the opening track, 'Uproot A Noose Of Silk', looming imposingly out of a shrouded soundscape, announcing it's advent with a series of huge, deep, foghorn-like blasts, booming out then slowly dying away against a backdrop of small skittering, clicking sounds and ambient atmospherics, sharp cymbal skims and washes of orchestral strings, pretty much in the style of Lustmord or Cold Meat Industry artists like Raison d'Être, Megaptera and Atrium Carceri. Distant phantasmal cries and muffled screams increase the unease. At around seven minutes, the orchestral elements give way to spacy electronics and a cold, metallic drone, overlaid with sounds of laboured, bestial breathing, something like getting an obscene phone call from a spaceship in Hell (not that I ever have, but a boy can dream...). All this dark, sinister stuff then disappears for a short passage of mesmerizing, cinematic synth chords, redolent of wonder and suspense, which segues straight into the second track, 'Willows Deep', which piles on suffocating, claustrophobic layers of drifts and drones, combined with churning industrial ambient roar and grind and a strange, experimental section of processed grunts and squeals which sounds a bit like a choir of pigs singing through a Vocoder! 'Visceral Monologue' concludes the first half of the album with a loop of reverberating bells, overwhelmed by noisy, low-end rumble, swooping, searing, mid-frequency metallic tones and machine-shop clank and clatter, with the interlude 'The Death Of Kotzwara' reintroducing orchestral themes which build from a background of turbulent, shifting atmospherics, a soothing harmonic structure punctuated with subterranean eruptions and incursions. The second half opens with 'Sickly Sweet Fertilizer', a shrieking clamour of stabbing Psycho-strings and robotic swoosh leading into slow, stretched vocal samples and the sound of someone desperately gasping for breath (a reflection of the album's theme), with just a tinge of a Throbbing Gristle-style old-school industrial beat ticking away in the background, followed by a lighter passage of smooth, expansive synth chords. 'A Breath, Then It Comes' is introduced by a sample of a deep male voice reciting poetry, with long, low moans and other vocal fragments reinforcing the feeling of human presence, in contrast to the cold, inhuman feel of most of the rest of the album. Liquid trickling sounds percolate through spacy layers of drone and thunder-rumble, and the track concludes with a short sample of vintage film music - which does feel a bit stranded and out of place on these alien shores. 'Aural Cavity Obstruction' reverts to cold ambient drone and roar, flecked with short samples of a terrified woman whimpering and odd little patters and splashes. Towards the end, the track sort of congeals around a rhythmic core, then disperses again, ending with some vocal sounds which could be weeping or muffled laughter. The album concludes with 'Light Rejection, The Return', a 12-minute epic which again brings in a loose rhythm, with sampled crowd noises, mechanoid clangs and remote, flute-like tones arranged around pulsating ambient synth structures. Where The Mandrakes Grow was mastered by veteran ambient composer Robert Rich, well-known for his solo work, his project Amoeba, and his collaborations with Steve Roach, Alio Die and Lustmord, and the album is definitely enhanced by his treatment, which keeps the drones suitably deep and massive without allowing them to drown out all the intricate little details that adorn the broad washes of sound. There are a depressing number of undistinguished, generic dark ambient releases around, but with this release, Roto Visage seems ready to step up to the major leagues. Where The Mandrakes Grow is on a par with the best that labels like Cyclic Law, Cold Spring and Cold Meat Industry have to offer, and this album is recommended to all those with a taste for really unsettling, pitch-dark ambient - although Roto Visage show no sign of having the occult predilections of say, Black Seas Of Infinity or the Aural Hypnox bands. The album is packaged in a six-panel digipack sleeve, and it's a limited-edition release of 1000 copies. Review Written by Simon Collins for Judas Kiss Magazine.