Madrigals don’t really get enough attention in popular culture these days. That said, the work of Don Carlo Gesualdo, upon which the first half of Night Of Your Ascension is based, was largely forgotten about after the renaissance period, until it enjoyed something of its own renaissance in the 20th century.
But the drama that surrounded his life seems to receive more attention than his music, which is perhaps understandable, seeing as he murdered his wife and her lover – in particularly gruesome fashion – after catching them in the act. Using the madridgal Ahi Dispietata e Cruda as a basis, JR Robinson, aka Wrekmeister Harmonies, has assembled a 30-strong ensemble that includes the likes of Alexander Hacke, Marissa Nadler and Chris Brokaw – and it shows.
The two compositions that make up the album are sublime and have considerable scope and depth, with the title track in particular standing out as a serious and quite incredible piece of work. By appropriating the source material and combining it with the history of Gesualdo, Robinson has created something utterly unique and phenomenally ambitious.
Equal parts biography, celebration and horrorshow it is moving and evocative. The first section reworks the original composition, with Nadler’s vocals drifting over a delicate classical drone like the ghostly presence of Gesualdo’s victims. As it progresses, Nadler drops from the mix, leaving the subtle and haunting strings to establish themselves. There’s a palpable ache that pervades this section but whether that is supposed to invoke guilt on behalf of Gesualdo, or represents mourning for his victims is never entirely clear. The choral section around the midpoint does have a funereal flavour however.
Then, the mood changes considerably, with the introduction of thunderous doom laden guitars and solid purposeful drums. Initially it feels as if the piece has become more violent, but that’s simply down to the application of distortion: the violence has been present throughout in various forms. There is an intensity to the second half of the song that feels like a malevolent and sustained attack, and just as the first subsides, the collective pile in again, ramping up the tension to a frenzied level, mirroring the nature of Gesualdo’s attacks. The song finishes abruptly in a squeal of white noise and repetitive chants as if cut dead. It’s a breathless finale to a complex and stunning piece of contemporary composition.
The second track, Run Priest Run focuses on the death of US priest Father John Geoghan who was convicted of child molestation and then murdered by an inmate whilst in solitary confinement. Thematically, it is similar in tone to the first half of the album, addressing the act of murder and its ramifications. Musically, however, this is a somewhat different beast. Whilst there are still haunting vocals over the first section, they overlay a scratchy electronic and metallic sonic backdrop. Percussive notes emulate the sound of clanking bars as static fizzes in a threatening manner. As invocation of a darkened cell, it’s pretty much perfect. As bass tones and pounding drums enter the mix, Chip King’s vocals morph from angelic croons to blood curdling screams.
His embodiment of the righteous fury of Geoghan’s victims and the howling of the dying priest encapsulates many of the themes that run through this album. Whilst there are no definitive answers provided by Night Of Your Ascension, it provides a quite extraordinary soundtrack for considering notions of justice, life, love and murder.