Soundwalk Collective With Patti Smith - The Peyote Dance - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Soundwalk Collective With Patti Smith - The Peyote Dance

by Mark Moody Rating:6 Release Date:2019-05-31
Soundwalk Collective With Patti Smith - The Peyote Dance
Soundwalk Collective With Patti Smith - The Peyote Dance

Some days you don’t learn much and some days you learn a lot.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I hadn’t heard of early 20th century French poet Antonin Artaud until picking up the review assignment for Soundwalk Collective’s The Peyote Dance.  Unlike artistic contemporaries such as Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Luis Buñuel, Artaud didn’t rank a spot in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris flashbacks, so what other proof do you need that he has been somewhat lost to the vagaries of time.  Regardless, Artaud led an interesting life as a poet, writer, actor, and a life long proponent of the Theater of Cruelty.  Again not catching a break, the Theater of the Absurd gets so much more press. 

Artaud’s one play that made it to production was a 17 show run of his adaptation of Shelley’s The Cenci.  A play where the plot revolves around a daughter plotting her father’s murder after being raped by him.  If that comes across as unseemly, it’s exactly what Artaud and his fellow Theater of Cruelty cronies were going for.  Make the audience squirm in their seats to get them feeling miserable and in touch with the basest of human reactions.  Personally, I'd rather see Kinky Boots again, but to each his own.

So what does any of this have to do with The Peyote Dance album and Patti Smith’s involvement with Soundwalk Collective.  Well, everything it turns out.  The Peyote Dance is an exploration of Artaud’s year abroad in Mexico with the indigenous Rarámuri.  The group was noted for their peyote rituals and Artaud partook in an effort to kick a life long opioid addiction.  An interesting approach that at a minimum provided something of an experiential journey to base future writings on.  In an effort to reproduce Artaud’s experience, Soundwalk Collective’s founder Stephan Crasneanscki traveled to the same region of Mexico to record the rhythmic backing to the album along with found sounds such as wind and what sounds like scraping on pottery.  To this Smith overlaid spoken word recitations of Artaud’s writings of the period and an original poem she scripted of Artaud’s final days in an asylum.

If the setup for all this doesn’t sound like The Peyote Dance is the feel good album of the Summer you would be correct.  After a brief Spanish spoken word piece that translates to ‘A Note on Peyote’ which is read by Gael Garcia Bernal, the album begins its maddening descent.  The musical tracks are not representative of Mexican popular music, but may very well have something in common with the rituals that inspired Artaud’s and Soundwalk Collective’s work.   

The two longer tracks here at ten minutes apiece are the Artaudian epics ‘Indian Culture’ and ‘Alienation and Black Magic’.  The former is underlaid by a rumble of low drums and other percussion while Smith incants the poem.  ‘Indian Culture’ flirts the most with the Theater of Cruelty concepts with lines like “urinary camphor from the bulge of a dead vagina” and psycho-sexual babble like “daddy/mummy make his buttocks bloody” that are sure to put you in a state of unease.  Probably not something you will listen to on repeat, but Smith does sound fully engaged and it makes an impression even if an uncomfortable one.  ‘Alienation and Black Magic’ is even more disturbing with its loose atmospherics and Smith passionately reciting Artaud’s rants against doctors (“if there had been no doctors, there never would have been patients”), asylums, and electro shock therapy.  She screams out repeatedly about Bardo, a reference to the suspension of life in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  The track would be a perfect accompaniment for a truly creepy haunted house.  If you need a musical reference, The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift’ and ‘The Murder Mystery’ come close. 

Elsewhere, two tracks read out more like descriptions of the peyote rituals Artaud observed.  And there are two tracks that are more “song like” in structure.  Of course these are the two that have been released as singles - ‘The New Revelations of Being’ and the Smith original ‘Ivry’.  The former begins as spoken word, but Smith ably converts the poem to sung choruses over an interplay of drums and violins.  Even if the subject matter is challenging, Smith’s skills turn it in into one of the most compelling tracks.  ‘Ivry’ traipses along like a gentle nursery rhyme but details Artaud’s final days in the district’s asylum.  She describes him as "a man like no other" which is as understated a moment as this album has.  Smith clearly evidences empathy for her poet brother who lived a less than charmed life.  (The video below adds impact given the use of actual film of Artaud).  

If you are a fan of Artaud, the avant-garde, or spoken word productions, The Peyote Dance may be right up your alley.  In spite of Smith’s clearly earnest approach, it’s not something I would want to spend more time with than I already have.  It has more of the feel of a recorded Master’s program thesis than anything bordering on entertainment.  But in fairness it was Artaud’s vision to shock and disturb and The Peyote Dance is successful in that.  I respect the project and the approach, it's just not my hour long cup of peyote tea. 

Note:  In addition to The Peyote Dance, Soundwalk Collective will be releasing similar works (under the collective banner of The Perfect Vision) later this year.  The forthcoming albums are based on Arthur Rimbaud’s time in Ethiopia and René Daumal’s journey to the Himalayas.  It looks like Smith will be involved in those as well.  It will be interesting to see if there is a shift in tone or approach given the different locales and poets.  At a minimum, Crasneanscki was able to get out and connect with his subjects at their points of inspiration which certainly resonates.  No doubt the expense of doing that will also defray a bit of taxable income. 

              

           

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