7 Dec 2023

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Serpent Dream - EP Review: Deadlock

07 Sep 2022 // A review by Nicholas Clark

You could be forgiven for anticipating a heavy metal with a cover and title like this. A glowing photogram of an Australian mental health institution key hints at themes of incarceration and of security or danger. One might ask, before the recording begins, are we looking through the key? Are we looking in or out?

With expectations of loud guitars and drums, (having entered the album totally fresh), I was surprised by a soundscape inhabited by field recordings of running water and electronic noises that burbled in deep reverb.

The opening track, Manifest – Manifold, still had me thinking some heaviness might be around the corner with a rising tone, but this breaks into soulful acoustic guitar lines over a droning note. Then, when a soft voice interrupts, the guitar ceases causing the listener to concentrate on only one aspect above the drone. This is followed by a mournful violin, before the guitar joins again and finishes the track with beautiful arpeggiating chords that weave above the thin layers. Although few words could be made out, the tone of the voice was not full of dread or warning, but a type of bittersweet welcome. The next track, Dead Reckoning, establishes the sound more solidly without the build-up, but the vocals are clearly warning us to ‘wake up’.

A rising and distorting violin line transforms into an electrical signal that fizzes in Stalking Shadows, while the mournful tone of a Koauau (Maori flute) can be heard in Apparitions. There are vocals present in these songs, but like the opening track, they are too distorted to make out words, if indeed there are any words to be heard. I was reminded of the nonsense lyrics of Icelandic post-rock outfit, Sigur Rós, whilst trying to determine any words, but in doing so I became quiet and attentive.

And maybe that’s the point; to listen without pretension to these familiar instruments in an unfamiliar background. Although there are rhythms to be found here, the sounds are shown very much on their own against the drone notes or the field recordings. There is some layering, but the instruments are shown as they would be in an art gallery: on a plinth against a plain background to admire them. A nylon-string acoustic guitar is played throughout the recording, occasionally with reverb, but without it also which makes it seem intimate and close. Percussive footsteps walk toward or away from us as Apparitions comes to a close, but then electric guitar returns with a vengeance, played in such a way as to emphasise the otherness of this instrument compared to its acoustic counterpart that has brought us here. Disconcerting heavy breathing in the same rhythm closes the track. Breathing Space offers a different approach by seeming to take the audience on an adventure through water, beginning with what sounds like underwater noises, until we are splashing above the surface rhythmically.

Dream Eater, perhaps the most conventional track, begins with acoustic guitar leaving such long pauses I checked my player. The intention, again, is to keep the listener attentive, and quiet, which I was. After some vaguely swampy blues playing, a beat emerges, and then a rising noise that reveals itself as the voice appears, before washes of electric guitar join the throng and a stoner doom riff establishes a dirge. An incredibly distorted noise brings the track to a sudden and abrupt end on a dime. The final track, Kistvean (a Celtic tomb) begins with the sounds of a tightening rope, backward vocals and violins. The last minute is small ticks of static that make you worried there will be some surprise, but the recording ends and you start to breathe and move normally again.

I found myself distracted listening to the tracks, but not in a bad way. I began staring at objects, doodling a little and thoroughly intrigued by the scope and intelligence of the recording. I researched a little about Serpent Dream to find a website dedicated to a certain aesthetic sound engineer James Costin has established utililising the natural world (except for NASA audio samples used in his first EP, 2019’s The Language of Things) and a mix of electric and acoustic instruments incorporating world percussion. His most recent before Deadlock, 2021’s Nova is (according to the artist) an “inter-art cohesive audio-visual project, combining composition, sound design, and audio manipulation” presented in combination with psychedelic imagery utilising vertical and horizontal reflections of natural beauty or painted bodies. One wonders what possible visualisations this very different recording would offer. Although I am sure there are different interpretations of Deadlock, to me at least, it was not a message of being trapped but about healing and finding an escape.

I found the record intriguing and worthy of another listen, though less active listening was more enjoyable. Perhaps whilst doing yoga, gentle exercise, making art or indeed walking in the natural world would be appropriate for listening to this, provided the audience knows there are some surprises along the way and some darkness amongst the beauty. Another way to listen, in order to hear every detail, would be to meditate with it.

By the end of the seven tracks, I realised as the artist may have planned, the symbol of the key on the cover has a reflective nature. The key to healing or freeing us is ourselves.

Rating: ( 4 / 5 )

About Serpent Dream

Starting his creative pursuits firstly as an audio engineer - James Costin quickly fell in love with the expression and unique sonic possibilities offered by the digital tools of music creation. The joys of winding acoustic guitar and world percussion soon followed, all blending into the far-out psychedelic sound design of his first EP The Language of Things.

Drawing from the natural environment, the inner mind and perceptions of human experience, this marked the beginning of Serpent Dream's surreal, electro-acoustic music and introspective soundscapes.

With an Advanced Diploma of Audio Production under his belt, James continued these sonic explorations and traveled from his hometown of Canberra, Australia capturing sound and experiences along the way.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Serpent Dream


Year: 2022
Type: EP
Year: 2021
Type: EP
The Language of Things
Year: 2019
Type: EP
Year: 2017
Type: EP

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