Katabasis is a Greek term for a journey downhill. It is used in Ancient Greek literature to describe travelling from the interior of a country to its coast. In Greek mythology, it describes a trip to the underworld, as exemplified by Orpheus’ quest to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living.
‘Katabasis’ is also the title of a new record by Greek electronic musician Panos (or Pangiotes) Alexiades, two long electro-acoustic pieces that combine synth drones with ambient noise and field recordings that recall a more shadowy, austere take on the kind of space inhabited by Helm’s recent ‘Hollow Organ’. The title is no accident, with the long, slow sound waves of Katabasis Part 1 evoking journey of some kind, marking gradual progress into some kind of subterranean space. These irregular, looming surges have a resinous, hard-edged feel, like a violin or some other bowed instrument. Occasionally sonar pulse reverberates through the space.
This first piece clocks in at around 19 minutes, its droning loops give it a sinister inevitability, neither speeding up nor slowing down, yet slowly changing, like the waves lapping on the shore of a ruined beach. Musically it reminds me of William Basinski’s tape loop experiments – I’m thinking of the glassy piano bubbles of ‘Nocturnes’ in particular – but with the meditative aspects of that piece bent out of shape and etched with claustrophobia and fear. Eleven minutes in, weird, monotonous clanking sounds start. Four minutes later an explosion of electronic glitches and noise smashes the piece into burnt metallic shards.
If this is a descent into hell, there’s nothing Grand Guignol about it. It’s not some theatrical black metal record with runic script and lyrics about witches and daemons. The landscape conjured up here is far more real, and disturbing. The sparseness evokes a journey through a bleak landscape, yet one where nameless horrors lurk at the edge of our vision. Is it hell, or is it a vision of the world after some dreadful collapse, where the only hope is to head south to try to wrench some sustenance from the blackened earth?
Any sense of movement is jettisoned for the second cut, enigmatically titled 15:21. An isolated electronic tone echoes. A kick drum beats. Synths blurt out suddenly from the nothingness and then die away. It is stasis, desolation, emptiness, absence, coldness, paranoia. Everything is drenched in reverb, making every sound echo as if it is in some vast underground cavern.
This is, for me at least, a profoundly political work too. Alexiades’ nightmarish vision reflects a wrecked modern landscape, our institutions hollowed out, public space colonised and personal agency corrupted by years of neoliberal consensus. The result is an overriding paralysis of contemporary culture, the only response a Beckettian stumble through the darkness. I can’t go on. I will go on. Yet, strangely, there is consolation here too. At the end of 15:21, warbling, arpeggiated synths burble into life, like some kind of mechanical birdsong. It’s like finding flowers sprouting in the rubble.
Or perhaps it is a nod to the convention in Greek mythology that katabasis is usually followed by anabasis – a return to the land of the living – without which it simply results in death. Whatever it is – and perhaps it is both – it provides a smidgeon of comfort at the end of this powerful and unnerving record.