Review: Vessel – Punish, Honey

Context can direct the effects of art completely, and it can be a proper dastardly thing. With Punish, Honey, Sebastian Gainsborough’s second full-length as Vessel, there seems to be an asynchronous relationship between his intentions and the reception of the record. For starters, a declared intent to explore, “What does ‘Englishness’ in music really mean?” was tacked onto the end of the press release, which is a curious question in itself, let alone as something to arise from that ever-nebulous scene of Bristolian bass. Despite his departure from a norm of software and electronic hardware production towards self-made instrumentation, tracing Gainsborough’s marks on the map up until the new album supports the change as something coherent and not particularly surprising: working with Kahn as Baba Yaga and El-Kid and Jabu to release as Killing Sound, both beneath umbrella collective Young Echo, plus solo output under the Vessel project with a 12” for Liberation Technologies. Gainsborough has proved his diversity through his creations these past few years, from the symptoms of dub and industrial on debut LP Order of Noise to the quirky house around all that. Having professed more interest in listening to punk and jazz than the electronic music coming from those perceived to be his peers in recent times, the interesting question is whether Vessel’s self-abstraction from the club-oriented environment changes how Punish, Honey fits into our own narratives.

Stream: Vessel – Anima (Tri Angle)

It’s far from an original story; electronic producer forgoes traditional software set-up for ‘real’, ‘tangible’, ‘organic’ instruments (and the quality of the outcome varies). In Gainsborough’s case though, the driving force is a desire to explore further and further, and this is just where his next step has taken him – a situation where he must throw away everything he’s learned in order to distill that raw, unsoiled and wide-eyed creative instinct. This is where the sheet metal percussion and dismembered-bicycle flutes come in, allowing Gainsborough to get his whole body behind the music, and it screams to be felt. Punish, Honey is nothing if not physical. It’s visceral in the sense that even the subtler moments strike with impact, meaning much of the album feels all-or-nothing; Gainsborough’s forays into brash-sounding textures leave little room to breathe and even on the false delicacy of “Black Leaves and Fallen Branches” the claustrophobia seeps through.

Much of Punish, Honey lacks the structuring that so often reveals dancefloor intent in tunes. Sometimes, such as with the title track, Gainsborough feels his way through progressions of sound until he finds his way to a point where he’s inclined to close things down. It’s the only beatless track on the LP however its chord stabs plod along steadily in the absence of any drum. There are pieces that are segmented into stages, too, however, once the intro winds down and the pounds and rattles of “Drown in Water and Light” are introduced, the arcs used can seem a bit too well defined and predictable, certainly when they appear as waves of brooding bass and rising muffled atmospherics. It could even be that Gainsborough had inadvertently stretched out and corroded some dubstep in that case. Sonic motifs take to centre-stage in place of melodies, being the most potent aspect of Gainsborough’s experimentations, usually inducing a variation of moods utilising similar tones from the same palette of rustic, caustic sepia and greyscale. Those cues – everything from the tortured organ of “Euoi” to the rollicking ticks and frenzied triangle licks of “Kin to Coal” – sound well suited to something as immersive as a videogame score.

Stream: Vessel – Red Sex (Tri Angle)

Perhaps just as inadvertently, there are a couple of serious club bangers on Punish, Honey. The record closes with “DPM”, a jam that stammers and bubbles its way up into the sort of hackneyed noise-techno that doesn’t come as expected on Tri Angle. It rips and saws through whirs and drones with dramatic disregard as Gainsborough goes all out on this final flourish of a track that will dissipate the wrong dancefloors just as quick as it’ll catalyse the right ones. There’s also “Red Sex”, which arrives after album opener “Febrile” – a slew of austere silences and the kind of drum rolls that bring to mind the 20th Century Fox ident before pulverising everything with drill sounds. “Red Sex” is the other club-ready track, and is the first real taste of Punish, Honey. True to the album name, it brings the sweet with the sour, foreshadowing some of the record’s influence calling cards such as new wave and industrial.

Hell, there’s a bit of everything in here – Gainsborough maintains he was never actually asking the question of what Englishness in music really means, but he does reckon the core of it lies between “Gilbert and Sullivan, Coil, and British soundsystem music”. There’s a strong case for that in principle, and the inflections of punk, noise and techno, dubstep, jazz and dub, ambient and experimental and all the other (apparently useless) genre tags unleashed into the maelstrom that is Punish, Honey are all propped up on the confluence of cultures found in post-colonial Britain. There’s no justification for England’s invasion of one-quarter of the planet, but grey clouds can have silver linings, pain means pleasure somewhere else to maintain the balance and as you lick your wounds you may well catch a slight taste of sweet catharsis, honey.

Punish, Honey is out now on Tri Angle Records.