Fans of Iska Dhaaf will not be left wanting by their second full-length album, The Wanting Creature (Brick Lane Records), released this month. In nine tracks, duo Benjamin Veroes and Nathan Quiroga deliver a balance of pulsing energy, sultry ambience, crisp synths, rumbling guitar and poetic lyrics on various forms of loss: love, grace, meaning, etc. They never grow too angsty or too personal, nor do they overplay the profundity of what they’re doing. The Wanting Creature is foremost a catchy, compact album, but the brilliant sequencing and layered meanings of it allow for satisfying discoveries if one looks closely.
The tone is more dark, less raw than Iska Dhaaf’s first album, Even The Sun Will Burn, but it doesn’t feel like a departure for the band. It’s too soon in their career to make those sorts of pronouncements anyways, but one definitely can see them evolving as storytellers. The album is allusive without being abstruse, and still ready to party.
That refusal to go too deep into one’s own head at the expense of the emotional and physical experience of the music (and life in general) is the key to The Wanting Creature. One can still party to it, but one can also make a more careful reading of it. Here’s my take:
I know I just praised The Wanting Creature for not being abstruse, but I can’t help but quote from a lecture by Michel Foucault, as translated by Lucio Allais, regarding embodiment:
[My body] is at the heart of the world, this small utopian kernel from which I dream, I speak, I proceed, I imagine, I perceive things in their place, and I negate them also by the indefinite power of the utopias I imagine. My body is like the City of the Sun. It has no place, but it is from it that all possible places, real or utopian, emerge and radiate.
From the burning sun to the kernel of the body, The Wanting Creature constantly encounters embodiment, but not in a crass, antagonistic way that is all too typical.
In the twentieth century, the body became increasingly political: a battleground for sovereignty, a prison for the intellect, a symbol of freedom and oppression. In The Wanting Creature, however, the body is not something to be overcome (as it is in technocratic, “transhuman” paradigms), nor is it a signifier of other things, an abstraction that privileges representation over experience. It simply is “the zero point of the world” (Foucault again). The body of The Wanting Creature is the seat of the sensual experience, of everything that lies between intimacy and alienation, the self and other, plurality and oneness.
The album’s first track, “Invisible Cities,” opens in the thick of this, especially the sense of alienation that occurs through a saturation of images, in which the voice becomes “A creature of habit, an animal in civilian clothes,” as expendable as roadside flowers: “Pick one and another will grow.” Confronted with a surfeit of “faces and beautiful bodies,” one is compelled to seek the individual with whom one can be “alone together inside our bodies.” It is not the validation of a mob, but the immediate closeness of the other. That is what must become sufficient.
The lyrics are delivered with an aptly frenetic yet monotonous staccato before opening up into a more melodic final section, which introduces another motif of the album: unknowing. Without the ability to ever peer inside another’s being or to foresee the future, one may either find contentment in the curiosity (yay) or be lost in speculation and abstraction (nay).
Enter track two, “Lost,” in which the addressee of the song has become lost in self-centered thoughts. The warmth of an adjacent body, the warmth of surrounding laughter is lost in abstractions that seem to exist in a higher plane in the mind of the thinker, but which are necessarily tethered to a mortal, egoistic dread. The hissing and rumbling synths accompanying Quiroag’s listless vocals are rightly ethereal, and darkly toned.
Track three, “Say What you Want to Say,” could be seen as the album’s requisite break-up song, with a flow that approaches R & B and an emphatically bittersweet sound. Quiroga’s vocals soar smoothly, just shy of breaking, in a way that resembles a tempered Thom Yorke. But lyrically, it is still of a piece with the central themes of The Wanting Creature in its tender acknowledgement that, day by day, new forms of self emerge in relation to other. Though physically apart, the two selves become increasingly contingent, and remain so even after parting for good.
Track four, “Chrysalis,” might be the weakest of the album. Quiroga’s vocals remain strong (I hear a touch of Chris Corner), but melodically it gets a little messy, and the closing vocal sample detailing the emergence of a monarch butterfly from the titular chrysalis is not terribly edifying. I could make a case for it: The metamorphosis of butterflies are a tired symbol of transcendence, especially of a spiritual nature, but here the matter-of-fact description of the change redirects attention to the raw physicality of birth/rebirth, not some numinous ideal. i admit that I am generally prejudiced against long audio samples like this, but even if I set that aside, the technique falls flat.
The next track, “Faceless Death,” is far more sonically appealing, with production that turns jarring sounds into pleasing punctuation, a way to rouse the ears from what could become a macabre lullaby (a redux of Pink Floyd‘s “Comfortably Numb,” perhaps). On another album, it might feel just angsty, as the voice slips away into an out-of-body experience. But as a counterpoint (and the center point) of an album in which the body is the alpha and omega, it makes perfect sense. Sequencing really is everything.
I believe that the significance of its central spot is no accident for another reason: The opening track, “Invisible Cities,” is, of course, also a literary reference. Italo Calvino‘s acclaimed novel of the same name is, among other things, an investigation in plurality and perception. It’s complex structure, too, has an important center point: the city of Baucis, which stands high above the earth, invisible to one who wanders among the stilts and ladders supporting it. The second and final paragraph of that city’s description is as follows:
There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.
The trichotomy of Baucis is visible in The Wanting Creature as well, but instead of the physical earth, it is physical embodiment that is at once repulsive, revered and contemplated through its eventual absence. Unlike Baucis, the voice of “Faceless Death” is untethered and able to see its body and the earth spinning slowly below. Time, too, begins to move against itself, as it always does in reverie. The voice is playing at ego death, but is not entirely removed from the sensual and the sensory, as “total chaos” rushes through, “total beauty” flows through, and some persistent self “gone below” is acknowledged.
It is worth considering the cover photo of The Wanting Creature here, as well. It depicts the eloquent gape of a belly button in a toned torso, pricked with goose flesh. As the center point of “the zero point of the world,” as the postpartum crater (the literal postpartum “depression”), the navel has always had a sacred significance, acquiring even its own school of meditation, omphaloskepsis, which over time became synonymous with self-absorption. The Wanting Creature knowingly teeters on the edge of that (even calls it out in track two), but always drives back at the sensual experience, in which the Other must play a part for the experience to derive meaning.
Back to the music, then, with track six, “Laura Palmer,” named after the central figure of David Lynch‘s Twin Peaks. (Iska Dhaaf may have moved to Brooklyn, but they still know how to rep Pacific Northwest weirdness.) Laura Palmer is a peculiar narrative invention: a girl who is dead before the story begins, whose life and death are the central curiosity, as she comes to represent both idealization and innocence (the image) and deception and depravity (the reality).
The lyrics are faithful to these dualities and to themes of possession and that persistent unknowing: “Who was in my body?” “Who knows what’s real anyhow?” and, asks the refrain, “Who can tell us now?” The sensual experience and its pursuit of other is not neglected, but beautifully stated: “Walking both my fingers down your torso…There must have been a feeling that felt worth following.”
Not incidentally, the production on the track is Lynchian, too, with its backwards samples and booming reverb.
Track seven, “Moth,” further develops the sense of raw physicality, of its brevity and desire. If the diurnal butterfly of track four nods to transformation in the body, the nocturnal moth nods to its destruction in the pursuit of desire. That desire needn’t be strictly carnal and that destruction needn’t be absolute; the lyrics state “God was among us,” asserting a divine immanence, but the surrender urged in “Moth” is not to a wrathful, divine will, but “to beauty.” The message remains phenomenological, not theological. (Thank goodness.) It is a refreshing inversion to see the butterfly trope (exhausted as a metaphor for spiritual ascendance) become more explicitly tied to physical being, while the moth (a tired symbol of self-immolating desire) is tied to a higher yearning.
Track eight, “We Are,” begins with another prose recitation, and again I am not terribly impressed. This time it’s an opening passage from Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s Min Kamp, given a dramatic reading by the author himself… or else a very good mimic. The passage begins, “For the heart’s life is simple…” before detailing in frank prose the process of death and early stages of decay within the body. The reading is a bit overwrought, and starts to resemble narration from a creature feature. Though the content is not out of place and seemingly matter-of-fact, the treatment turns it into a sort of melodrama that becomes distracting, and the song suffers.
I started by mentioning how antagonistic the approach to the body has become. This is in part because the actual facts of death have become increasingly invisible. I probably cite Philippe Ariès too often, but his tome L’homme devant la mort and its closing argument (that we live in the age of “Invisible Death,” which makes death a more terrifying, isolating experience) comes to mind again. At the same time, our increased attention to body image has made our physical being all the more embarrassing. In art, grotesquerie and scatology are two strategies of countering the notion of bodily abstraction. The passage that opens, “We Are” could be seen as another method, but it doesn’t come together.
The final, title track is more lilting and less contrived as it speaks directly to “The Wanting Creature,” which is never satisfied, clinging to the closest thing it can find, and terrified just below the surface of the flesh. It is not for a moment derisive, but tender and compassionate. As it should be.
The phrase “The Wanting Creature” is one of the poet Kabir‘s more well-known, idiosyncratic phrases, so if one is familiar with it, the poem that contains it will already have been playing in one’s mind, informing one’s experience of the album. The album’s final moments are a recitation of it by Quiroga, providing another key to contemplating the album on a second listen.
Again, the delivery is not compelling, mostly because of the rather slack way vocal distortion was used to alter Quiroga’s voice into something more deep, mechanical and menacing. Perhaps they felt that a bare recording would seem pretentious or dull, but this effect did nothing to assuage that, and even feels a little counter to a work that exults in a kind of nakedness throughout.
As for Kabir, it is hard to interpret his work in the modern age, but he gets looped into various discussions of mysticism and mindfulness. His words (and this poem, especially) mesh nicely with a phenomenological perspective, which is more or less what I would bring to this album. The solipsism of track two “Lost” is not confined to a few individuals; it is manifest in the culture, and phenomenology is sometimes included in it. It is possible, however, to accept subjective experience (wholly contained in the body) to be the point of departure for an investigation and still maintain both rationality and empathy. The latter relies on humility, and acceptance of one’s unknowing, and mystics like Kabir eloquently point this out:
And there is no body, and no mind! / Do you believe there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty? / In that great absence you will find nothing.
The contemplation of absence (in Baucis above and Kabir below) is the most apt way to end the album, so again, Iska Dhaaf’s sequencing is spot on. There is no perfect body, no perfect work of art, no perfect album—but there are those things that allow us to accept imperfection and aspire to better, all while keeping our feet planted in our sense of reality, appreciating it and our yearning as they are. The Wanting Creature is such a work.
Pre-order Iska Dhaaf’s The Wanting Creature online. Get other merch and info at iskadhaaf.com. Iska Dhaaf will be performing at the Gorge for Sasquatch Festival on May 30. Learn more about the festival at www.sasquatchfestival.com. Listen to The Wanting Creature streaming on SoundCloud below.