Photos: Katie Hovland
“Night of Your Ascension,” the title track from Wrekmeister Harmonies’ most recent album (released Nov. 13 on Thrill Jockey Records), quietly opens with delicate, reverb-drenched female vocals singing atop droning keys. Over the course of the 32-minute track, Wrekmeister Harmonies gradually take the listener from these gentle and pastoral sounds into a full-on pummeling metal onslaught to close out the track. On Dec. 21, musical mastermind JR Robinson will bring Wrekmeister Harmonies’ expansive musical landscapes to Diabolical Records. SLUG spoke with Robinson about Night of Your Ascension and its grand production.
Prior to forming a band, Robinson was doing abstract installation art, which Wrekmeister Harmonies eventually grew from. “I was doing a film installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago, and I wanted to do a live score for it,” Robinson says. “I wanted this really epic, long, sprawling, meditative piece that would be kind of disruptive at the end with some real heavy and intense music, so I just gathered up some musicians from the very rich talent pool of Chicago to pull that off.” Since that initial installation, Robinson has continued to grow the project and turn it into the touring act that is currently traveling the country. “When I first started the project years ago, I was just doing sound installations at museums all over the world, and then it just grew and involved more and more people until it reached the point I’m at today with Night of Your Ascension.”
The aforementioned build and change of the album’s eponymous first track can be haunting, even more so once we understand the story behind the piece. “[It’s] about a composer from the [Renaissance], Carlo Gesualdo, and the events that transpired during his life,” says Robinson. “At the beginning of the piece, I wanted to explore the idea of his early life when he was married to his wife and very happy and living in a beautiful, creative environment. By the end, I wanted to introduce the idea of fear, suspicion, jealousy and the extreme violence surrounding him murdering his wife and her lover, and all the emotions that are tied in with that. I think that was represented with the heaviness with the more metal aspects at the end.”
In the second part of the album with the track “Run Priest Run,” the music takes on a similarly dark tone. “‘Run Priest Run’ deals with Father John Geoghan,” says Robinson. “He was a priest in Boston where I grew up, who was responsible for abusing 150 children over many years and nearly brought down the Archdiocese of Boston, and abused the trust of a lot of people. Eventually, he was brutally murdered in jail.” These two tracks are fairly typical of Wrekmeister Harmonies’ output, with their long-form droning and unsettling conclusions, but thematically, they move far beyond anything Robinson had done previously. “Conceptually, this [album] is dealing with subject matter that is broader and has many more layers to the story,” he says. “Where in past records it was about a single emotion or was about a couple of emotions embodied in one person, the scope of these two pieces [on Night of Your Ascension] and the unifying theme of religion between the two is just so far beyond anything we’ve done previously.”
The arrangements that Robinson is able to put together with a small army of musicians move far beyond what most bands with solid lineups are able to achieve, or what he could accomplish on his own. “I can’t play the cello, and I can’t play the violin, but I know people who are really good at them,” says Robinson. “So what happens, generally, is I’ll get inspired by something I read about or research and I’ll come up with a sonic narrative for whatever that inspiration is and start recording how I think it should sound. Since I know a lot of people, I’ll be like, ’Oh, this person or that person will be really great for capturing what I want to capture.’”
For Robinson, this broad approach with a fairly rotating cast of musicians allows him to accomplish what he sees as his artistic vision. “If you’re in a band with four people, you’ve got four distinct personalities and four egos and four distinct voices, and everyone wants to have their say. That can be kind of chaotic, [and] what I like about having a large number of musicians instead of a band to work with is it allows me a lot of freedom to do what I want.” Sometimes, however, the freedom that comes with this way of running things can come at a cost: “At the same time, with this last record utilizing 30 people,” he says, “I’m not going to do that again—that was really taxing. It can be complex and complicated getting 30 people to do anything because of people’s schedules and people’s locations, mindsets and attitudes, and a myriad of other things. At the end of this thing, I felt like maybe I was losing my mind, but I overcame that, and I’m really, really happy with how it came out.”
For practical reasons, this extensive lineup doesn’t make it on the road, but Robinson has put together a lineup he is excited about, which includes multi-instrumentalist Esther Shaw and Seattle doom metal band Bell Witch, who are also performing on the tour. You can catch Wrekmeister Harmonies and their expansive and beautiful brand of music at Diabolical Records on Dec. 21.