Review: The Measure of Mystery by Daniel Higgs

Accompanied by nothing more than the hiss of the tape machine and the shallow echo of imagined space, Daniel Higgs introduces us to the next chapter of his entropic aural canon: The Measure of Mystery.

Created as part of the Gnome Life Records ‘Echomancy Tape Series,’ this 41-minute, three song compilation was recorded over the course of a late fall evening in the wooded depths of Big Sur, California. It was recorded by Fletcher Tucker of Bird By Snow and Yurt, two other bands comprising the esoteric GLR roster.

Because the tracks on Measure are so parsed down, whatever production time went into the recording process was undoubtedly rather spent on prayerful preparation. The word ‘prayer’ is complicated, of course, but I mean it here in the more preternatural sense; a type of centering, orientation, or incantation. The particular vibrations of this incantation, while not apparent to the intellect, are only made sensible (or allowed to be sensible) on the waves of the music itself. As a result, while listening to Measure, one gets the feeling that he has heard this before, though not in this life time.

In the Ken Russell’s 1980 cult film, Altered States, scientist and hallucinogenics expert Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is experimenting with a new drug which, when taken within the constraints of his sensory deprivation chamber, triggers a type of psychotropic hallucination. The main side effect of this experience is a type of genetic regression, where the very chemistry of the body ends up reverting to a since-forgotten evolutionary stage. In other words, the atavistic traits of our forebears, which are stored in our biological structure, are caused to reappear. While the effects of this drug are outwardly apparent, what Russell is truly considering here is the idea of historical regression, or the non-linear container of Time. Not only does Jessup’s character later appear as a primitive human, but he remembers as a primitive human. If the biological structure is stored in our physical chemistry, the temporal structure is stored in our psychic chemistry.

The Measure of Mystery operates on this same level of psychic/hallucinogenic speculation. The music seems to be sourced from an earlier epoch, where music not only described, but instructed, or guided. The first track on Measure, titled “The Elemental Conflux at Big Sur,” is a wordless, ten-minute banjo raga; a paean dedicated to this primeval, pre-linguistic cosmology. This worldview has since been lost, but through particular types of music, we are able to recall it – albeit through a distant, indistinct, atavistic echo. The tape hiss of the recording reminds us of our fixity, though there are various moments throughout the album where we believe (or fantasize a la Eddie Jessup) that this may be transcended.

Normal record reviews usually evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the album itself, and then of the album in comparison to the rest of the artist’s work. I have always treated Higgs releases, even from his punk rock days, as chapters. One might discuss a chapter of a book, but it is only at the conclusion of the story that we will be able to judge the quality of the work. In this sense, I don’t consider Measure an album, but another portion; a short but tremendously strong chapter in the Higgs canon.

In this chapter, aside from the two tracks on Side A, there is an important, 20-minute footnote which comprises the entire Side B, where Higgs reads an extended version of his meditative panegyric, “Say God.” This track was originally released as the title track to the Say God album, released by Thrill Jockey in 2010. The original reading is a few minutes shorter than the Gnome Life version, and is aided in the background by low-volume, ambient drone. On Measure, Higgs has absolutely no accompaniment, save the timbre of the impromptu studio and the hiss of the recording machine. On this track, Higgs simply poeticizes about the name of this thing we call ‘God,’ and the pattern and time in which this name should be said.

I listened to the track in its entirety on a cold January morning as I rode the train into my day-time office job. The track finished the exact minute I reached my station, and as I stepped off the train with the droves of other bleary-eyed workers, I felt somehow separate. It wasn’t even that I had meditated, or been paying close attention to the words. Perhaps it was this regressive thing that characterizes Higgs’ music, but somehow I felt an inch above the ground. Not light, but present. The strange thing is, I know I wouldn’t be able to recreate this experience by doing the same thing a second time.

These moments happen on their own. Daniel Higgs just plucks the strings.

[Feature image from gnomeliferecords.com/daniel_higgs.html – Press Photo by Fumie Ishii]

Benjamin van Loon is a the managing editor and co-founder of Anobium Books.

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