Songline is a vocal-only record, released on Kahn’s own Editions label. Laid down in an old telecoms relay station in Switzerland, it is Kahn’s first release featuring studio voice recordings, and it complements his recent For Voice, on Mark Wastell’s Confront label, which was the first live recording of his voice work. The four long pieces here – corresponding to the four sides of the double album – each create their own distinct sonic universe, with Kahn focusing on a single area of vocal technique in each, their idiosyncrasies accentuated by the cavernous resonance of the old Swiss Telecom building.
The A side is all heaves and gasps, with Kahn essaying long, protracted wheezes like some ancient Beckett anti-hero, alone in the void as he creeps inexorably towards death. Although wordless, the sounds have some resemblance to stretched vowels, Kahn’s ‘aahhs’ and ‘urrrghs’ extended out so they become like drones, albeit drones that ebb and flow, the sounds at the start of each cycle degrading into strangled yelps as Kahn squeezes every last sonic molecule from the carbon dioxide expelled from his lungs. The other side isn’t dissimilar, although here the sounds are less guttural, even resembling sine tones at times (the first five minutes particularly) and at others a solitary plainsong.
It’s hypnotic and compelling, to be sure. But, for me, it’s the second record where the magic happens. At first, on Side C, I suspect that Kahn has smuggled one of his shortwave radios into the recording session, as he floods the space with a fuzzy, static-like sound. In reality, he’s making fricative, abrasive sounds, not unlike blowing a raspberry, in fact, but here lacking any kind of comedic or absurdist connotations, even when he deploys the high squeal more normally associated with a balloon releasing air through its pinched and moistened spout. No, these are more abstract sounds, almost animal more than human. Imagine a version of The Hobbit where Smaug the dragon is replaced with a vast Donald Duck-type creature. These are the sounds it would make when asleep under the Misty Mountain.
The serenity of the other three sides is shattered by Kahn’s wracked ululations on Songline’s final stretch. Here are cries of pain, primordial angst almost, the calmness-cum-resignation of earlier (particularly side A) turned into a boiling fury, a pre- or post-linguistic kicking against those pricks that the universe ranges against us. For nigh-on 20 minutes Kahn snarls and mewls, twisting his tongue and larynx into all sorts of blistered, warty shapes, souls writhing in pain and damnation in some forgotten circle of Hell, the terrifying voices echoing emptily in the vast space of an uncaring universe.