Some time later this year we will officially be living in a new geological epoch. The International Commission on Stratigraphy looks set to confirm that the Holocene has ended. In its place will be the Anthropocene. Not without its customary hubris, the human race has decided to name the new epoch after itself (the Greek prefix anthropo- means human). It will mark a period of time in which human activity has left and will continue to leave an indelible mark on the planet’s macrogeology. Massive-scale manufacturing, particularly of plastics, means that the ground we walk on is now partially made up of artificial material. Palaeontologists of the future may be studying Coke bottles alongside human skeletons. Places will drift off the map and into oceans. Paradoxically, as we remake the world in our own form we become more and more distanced from it. It will come as no surprise if the prevalent aesthetic of the Anthropocene is the aesthetic of deletion, and of disassociation.
We are outgrowing our settlements at an astonishing rate, and not just in terms of population. We have started to evolve faster than the land that supports us, and one corollary of this is loss: loss of physical built environments, and loss of certain aspects of our societal history. Languages and cultures are disappearing with farms and villages, outdated toys and obsolete technologies. These objects and ideas are becoming ghosts of our shared human past. Art, as it always does, is already reacting to these changes. In fact, art has always been about the Anthropocene, or a symptom of it – it could even be argued that the two have existed at exactly parallel time-spans – but only in recent years has it consciously started to interpret it.
Experimental music and sound art are at the forefront of this relatively new form of interpretation. Artists from both urban and rural settings have begun to record loss in ways that are often startlingly new and admirably engaged with their respective landscapes. The collective known as A Year In The Country have set themselves the admirable task of chronicling how the world is becoming more unsettled from a rural and mostly English standpoint. They have brought together a set of like-minded musicians to come up with a set of recordings that explore in some way the idea of The Quietened Village, that is, the settlements that have disappeared over time due to human involvement – intentional displacement, flooding, global temperature change, the effects of conflict.
Windy white noise, then a series of long, soft chords, set up the opening piece by David Colohan. It is an instrumental called At the Confluence of the Mitta Mitta and the Murray, and its self-conscious flatness and melancholy openness provide a perfect aural backdrop for a landscape that has changed greatly due to human action (in this instance the building of a huge dam and the flooding of an entire area) but remains wild and even unknowable. Howlround‘s Flying Over a Glassed Wedge is more discordant. Roars of ogreish industry are supplanted by alien bleeps and scrapes, all coming courtesy of reel-to-reel tape decks – think Delia Derbyshire for the end times. If Colohan’s track was a lament for a relatively small chunk of land and its relationship to humans, Howlround’s seems to suggest a lost future on a much larger scale. This is a trait of hauntology, which is already proving to be the prevalent genre of the Anthropocene.
The Straw Bear Band take a more literal stance. The Drowning of Mardale Green. Gentle strings and birdsong imply that, while violent changes in landscape are not always popular, they can create a new kind of beauty: in this case, the beauty of Haweswater in Cumbria, another lake formed by human intervention. The melancholy is still palpable, but it is to some extent tempered by the passing of time. The same could be said for The Soulless Party‘s contribution, Damnatorum (Latin, roughly, for ‘those who are condemned’). It derives its hauntalogical presence from sounds that are almost but not quite familiar: the strings and analogue ruffling of 1970s pastoralia, inverted and condensed. Polypores are more overtly electronic, and the low semi-human chant that resonates through their track, Playground Ritual, is dark and cultish. At the same time, an apparently intelligent technology blips and stutters in the foreground.
The prolific Richard Moult, better known through his work with Dublin-based collective United Bible Studies, lends a stately, almost classical air to proceedings with Quopeveil, while Rowan Amber Mill have a folkier take with Separations, their fiddles and flutes conjuring up a pleasingly clipped, detached take on a traditional melody. It’s not long before we are immersed again into glitchy electronic hauntology by Time Attendant‘s Dayblink, which has a trance-inducing propulsiveness to it. A Year in the Country‘s own addition – 47 Days and Fathoms Deep – is a subtle, ever-changing take on the theme in which delicate plinks play off against what sounds like a sample of distant gunfire.
Sproatly Smith, who are among the vanguard of this particular type of hauntological folk, make a welcome appearance with Lost Villages of Holderness, a two-part elegy for the whole settlements that have been taken by the sea along England’s east coast, a result of human impact upon climate and sea levels – a direct result of the Anthropocene, if you like. The second part is the album’s only vocal track, and this alone gives the song a sense of strange surprise. Cosmic Neighbourhood‘s brief but intriguing Bunk Beds – a cacophony of manipulated snores and snorts that could be animal or human or both – ends the record on a satisfyingly bizarre note.
Although is is difficult to see this kind of music ever being accepted by the mainstream, it is much easier to predict the artistic role it will play in documenting a new era. A Year In The Country have done an excellent job of rounding up many of the genre’s leading lights and, despite the wide range of sounds represented, The Quietened Village sounds impressively coherent. Its themes are tackled with sadness, hope and respect for the past, and will almost certainly supply prescient pointers for the future direction of nature, society and art. If the new epoch sounds like this, we may not be condemned after all.
The Quietened Village is Out Now
Available via Bandcamp
Go and explore: ayearinthecountry.co.uk