The big review: ArcTanGent 2023
Heilung, Converge, Devin Townsend and many more hit Fernhill Farm for four days of artistic celebration and musical madness at ArcTanGent Festival…
The seismic shifts of the last 23 months have inspired countless weird and wonderful collaborations, but few feel as bold or strikingly provocative as Alto Arc.
Bringing together Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke, Trayer Tryon of Florida art-rockers Hundred Waters, progressive producer Danny L Harle and revolutionary beauty guru Isamaya Ffrench, the project deals in almost-indefinable soundscapes that combine the eerie electronic atmosphere of latter-day Nine Inch Nails, haunting folk inflections and demonic doom influence. Playing George’s confrontational declarations against Isamaya’s more pixieish intonation, there’s a pervasive sense of high drama and abstract narrative drive across the five songs of their self-titled debut EP, which unfolds like the soundtrack to some dark fairytale.
As anyone who’s seen the Elizaveta Porodina-directed video for Bordello will know – with that cine-literate clip echoing the gothic grandeur of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and the surrealist horror of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin – their ambitions extend to creating bold visual art, too. This isn’t just about making music. It’s about building worlds.
All of which is even more impressive considering the band have yet to fully come together in the flesh. Joining us over Zoom on the eve of the EP’s arrival, George is looking out his window into the cold light of a New York winter’s day as Isamaya navigates the streetlit bank of a canal in east London. The pair aren’t sure when exactly they’ll be together in the same room again, but that distance and dislocation only seems to add to the aura of this music that feels like it’s been lifted from another world.
“It’s just how we roll!” laughs Isamaya. “’Let’s just never be in the same room!’ It seems to be working, so we probably shouldn’t mess with it.”
There’s a lot going on in Alto Arc’s music. How do you describe the project for those who’ve not had a chance to listen?
George: “That’s very difficult. I usually just say that it’s ‘extreme’ and ‘cinematic’. Whatever you can [deduce] from that, I welcome you to. It has a wide variety of influence. And, while it is aggressive at times, it’s hard to call it industrial because it’s more ethereal than that. It’s a lot of soundscape and strange arrangements. It’s admittedly pretty hard to pin down. But one of the greatest pleasures of this project is not having to think about what it might be, and just leaving it up to the listener to make of it what they will.”
Isamaya: “There’s a lot of heavy melody in the songs as well. Really, it’s the perfect audio representation of the four people who’re involved. We all have very different backgrounds in music and performance and this is a hard mix of those varied influences.”
Would you even really describe it as ‘rock music’, per se?
George: “I love to rock, but I wouldn’t call this rock (laughs).”
Isamaya: “I think it’s closer to opera than rock, in quite a fundamental way.”
George: “If we’re calling it anything, it should definitely be opera. Though, I did see that we got onto one of those ‘Best Current Rock Songs’ lists the other day…”
Isamaya: “Awesome (laughs)!”
It’s ‘alternative’ in a very real sense…
George: “I think ‘alternative’ is very apt.”
You’re a transatlantic project, with George and Trayer based Stateside while Isamaya and Danny are in the UK. How did the four of you come together?
George: “I didn’t know Ismaya or Danny before. I loosely knew Trayer through this festival called Form that he curates, and his other project Hundred Waters. I had been invited to do this spoken word performance with my friend Tom Krell in Los Angeles in, like, February 2020. Trayer was there. He and Danny had already been working on this music together. They’d been trying out more traditional singers, but it just wasn’t working. He asked if I’d like to give it a shot. I did, and it was a lot of fun. At the same time, Ismaya and Danny had been getting together…”
Isamaya: “Danny and I have a mutual friend and we had what I guess was a chance meeting. Then I met George and Trayer through him.”
George: “Danny was like, ‘Hey, can Ismaya join this project?!’ and we were all like, ‘Of course!’ I think we did the first try at Bordello in May when we had busted out from lockdown enough to see each other. Trayer and I tracked together in Los Angeles while Danny and Ismaya tracked together in London.”
Isamaya: “It was a lot of file sharing.”
George: “A lot of passing around and mixing and sharing ideas. It was cool.”
Ismaya, you’ve worked with the likes of Madonna, Björk and Rihanna as a renowned make-up specialist. What’s your background in music as a performer?
Isamaya: “My background before make-up was theatre. I had sung in the past and I had been with a theatre company for a number of years. So it feels native in a way. During lockdown, I did some stuff with [Irish electronic star] Sega Bodega and started working on a different album with a friend of mine that we’re going to be releasing later in the year. I just really love pursuing things that I’m instinctively taken with or inspired by. This project was very inspiring. I knew George’s work and I really respect Danny and Trayer, so it was just felt like, ‘Why not?!’ We were making some really interesting stuff…”
What kinds of music do you listen to as a fan?
Isamaya: “If we’re talking about heavier stuff, I err on the side of doom. But I’m actually a really big ’60s and ’70s prog fan – real dad music. And I love a lot of electronic music, as well. I think the thing that I’ve always loved about prog is the journey that it takes you on and how bands like 10cc, Electric Light Orchestra or Pink Floyd can make you feel like you’re watching a film where it just carries you. For me, that’s what Alto Arc’s music does as well. There are a lot of parallels there in terms of changes in sounds and styles. Plus, a lot of our tracks are quite long as well. Maybe we’re an operatic prog band? I don’t know…”
George: “I hope we are!”
Can you expand on the idea you’ve spoken of before, that your influences are more cinematic or narrative than strictly musical?
George: “Especially with Ismaya and I, it’s about theatre. This sound, this music that we’re making, has much more in common with a large theatrical production than, like a Merzbow show or anything more underground. I think that while we definitely draw from those worlds, this is supposed to be more large-scale and mystifying. Those qualities are really what bring us together. We’re inspired by directors like Robert Wilson and over-the-top but very great productions like Phantom Of The Opera. We sort of picture everything for a stage or a visual. We talked more about fables and storybook characters and archetypes than we did any actual musical influence. Again, that’s what makes this whole think kinda freeing. It’s not being bogged down by any genre boxes.”
Isamaya: “It’s about creating worlds or narratives for every piece of music that we make.”
Is there a specific narrative in mind for this EP?
George: “I think there are through-lines and little tethers, but it’s intended to be more abstract. It’s supposed to be emotionally focused, and whatever you can draw from the words that you can hear here and there only imbues the feeling that you already have. But, yeah, there’s a lot of pulling from fables and things like the [surreal art of] Leonora Carrington or the surreal writing of André Breton. People like that have always influenced this side of my writing. It also draws from a lot of storybooks in its villainous feeling, which is almost Disney-like.”
Isamaya: “George and I have very different and distinctive voices and styles, and while I’m obviously very inspired by the way that George writes, and his lyrics, that can be very potent. What feels more natural to me is to take on a folkier style of singing, which in itself references stories and old-world themes and archetypes. So you have these two very distinctive styles and sounds, and [the striking contrast between them] amplifies that difference, which is really nice. It is quite Disney to have these two characters: the villain – this almost intellectual, overthinking, dark character that comes out in George’s vocals – and the more innocent, pure counterpart.”
George, you would have been working on this music at the same time as Deafheaven’s fifth album Infinite Granite. Was it challenging to be pulled in two quite different directions?
George: “I loved it. It was fun for me because I had a secret. That in itself was exciting. Getting to work with these new people was exciting, too. And it was all happening while Deafheaven was doing something that was very new and exciting in itself. I was very entertained over that period of time. But everyone had stuff going on. One of the funniest things about how and when we were going to release the Alto Arc music was working around everyone’s ongoing release schedules for all of our projects. For all of us to take a break from those things, come together, and do something that’s totally unique, though, is a real pleasure.”
The description of pulling through ‘black granite’ in the lyrics to opening track The Modern Gospel feels reminiscent of your explanation of Deafheaven’s Infinite Granite concept from when we spoke last year. That can hardly be coincidental?
George: “No, there’s a ton of crossover. If you read the lyrics to Nocebo, there’re In Blur lyrics in there, too. Those are things that I was hoping people would find once they were familiar with the record, sort of like [Easter] eggs. They were being worked on at the exact same time.”
With your hectic schedule, did you find the same enjoyment in having something new to focus on, Ismaya?
Isamaya: “It was just so good. It’s so nice to have something that you’re doing just for yourself. Virtually all of my work is collaborative, really, and it was like I was able to step out of my regular headspace here to feel very free and inspired. Even though it’s Danny and I in London and George and Trayer in LA, George and I worked together a lot on the creative side of things. For me, having a partner in crime who was also very engaged and invested in the project felt very progressive.”
Elizaveta Porodina’s sumptuous video for Bordello feels like a real statement of intent. Is that an indication of what we can expect in future?
George: “That is certainly the goal. For Bordello, there is a very specific vision, and I think that every vision will be very different from the next, but in terms of how deeply collaborative and how many deeply talented people were involved, I do wish to continue. I think it really compliments the sounds of the music.”
Isamaya: “The next video which we’re planning will be very different. I’m excited to present something that has the same sentiment in terms of, not necessarily the aesthetic, but the theatrical vision and influences. I think that will probably be the red thread running through everything we do. Not necessarily a romantic, gothic style, but this undercurrent of real theatre on the visual side.”
As a world-renowned make-up artist and designer, do you lead the visual side Isamaya, or does it tend to be more collaborative?
Isamaya: “It’s super collaborative. George has mentioned to me before about how Deafheaven haven’t done many videos, and they’re not necessarily a very visual band but, actually, what George does bring – narration, ideas, his abilities as an incredible writer – makes him very easy to collaborate with in finding a visual way to bring his ideas to life. Working with Elizaveta was very easy, too, actually. We were all just very aligned I suppose. It’s a hard thing to put into words, but everything felt very instinctive.”
George: “When it was just Trayer and I working on Nocebo, it was like, ‘Oh, this is very cool. I’m very interested and inspired and confused by this! What could this be?’ Then when Ismaya became a part of the project, it was a real revelation. It opened up this whole world of possibility. And, then, to find that she and I do really connect on the visual aspect and how important and complimentary that is, was amazing. It is collaborative, but she really does lead all of this stuff. I’m often taken by surprise by how much is put together and how extraordinary it all looks. And that extends to Elizaveta, too. I was a fan of hers prior to the Bordello video, and I was very excited to work with her. She was this person I’d only really thought of in a ‘high fashion’ sense before, but we ended up going to see Cradle Of Filth together on Halloween. We have all these fun ties that make our working relationship really fluid.”
Tantalisingly, it feels like you’re just getting started. Can we expect more music further down the line?
George: “This is going to continue as it has been continuing. We just get together when we get together. We already have a couple of things that are partially finished that will probably trickle out eventually. There’s no slowing down. It’s just about doing this at a pace that keeps it enjoyable.”
Isamaya: “What George said! There’s no pressure but I think we’re all just really enjoying it.”
And, finally, with the inherent theatricality of the project, it begs for a live performance. We know you’ve not all been in a room together yet, but can we expect some sort of onstage production in the not-too-distant future?
George: “We currently have no hard plans for a live show, but we do talk about it all the time. How would we do it? When can we do it? It’s something that I would really like to take a lot of time to prepare. I think that it would be really visually enticing – and we would deliver on that. But a lot of it is scheduling and just getting that sorted.”
Isamaya: “We’ve been asked about an onstage performance so many times now that maybe we need to get on a call together and start working on it (laughs)!”
The Alto Arc EP is out now via Sargent House.
Heilung, Converge, Devin Townsend and many more hit Fernhill Farm for four days of artistic celebration and musical madness at ArcTanGent Festival…
Deafheaven’s iconic second album Sunbather will be getting the remix/remaster treatment, and they’ll be touring The States in celebration with Touché Amoré…
ArcTanGent have confirmed over 50 bands for next year’s festival bill – including Deafheaven performing their 2013 classic album Sunbather in full…
Hardcore mega-gathering Outbreak Fest celebrated its 10-year anniversary this weekend. We were there for every sweat-drenched spin-kick and free-flying stage-dive across a bonkers three days…
Alto Arc – featuring Isamaya Ffrench, Deafheaven’s George Clarke, and Hundred Waters’ Danny L Harle and Trayer Tryon – have shared a new single, Bordello, ahead of their upcoming self-titled EP.
It’s here: the Kerrang! verdict on the 50 albums that shaped 2021…
From Turnstile to Trash Boat to Jinjer, these are the best albums released in August 2021.