Joseph Curwen
Shunned House






Home sweet home my arse, Joseph Curwen is back with another aural dichotomy of claustrophobic wideness in one’s abode, so excuse the strong language as the reviewer finds himself trapped – or is that enshrined? – in a rubicund palace against all odds called the Shunned House. Released in September 2014 on Gateshead, UK-based Invisible City Records in an edition of 30 tapes, the two long-form pieces (split into two parts each) can be purchased and fully streamed at Bandcamp. Hailing from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mr. Curwen’s Hauntology drones are well known in the scene for two particular reasons: not only is he unsurprisingly a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) and the author’s twisted universe of specters, aliens and formless entities which his moniker already reveals (one Joseph Curwen appears in the story The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward), he is also more than keen to adapt the texts and turn them into jinxed sound waves. These often surpass the reading time of the respective story they are attached to. Increasingly, the artist known as Joseph Curwen breaks out and releases music that is not necessarily attached to Lovecraft’s universe, but comes pretty close nonetheless. Not unlike Palancar’s similarly titled Dark Ambient shack Crooked Little House (2011), Curwen unfurls strong winds, clinging catenae of doom, a demonic coquette and her opaque chants as well as shedloads of reverb and decay. Masked electric guitars and glistening synths round off said house… and what a surprise: it is the latter instrument that takes a stand. An incandescent stand against debris and mutation.


Since it is already in place when the listener experiences the gruesome cross-linkage between evil epithelia and sinister superfluids, I can pinpoint the most frightening source of Joseph Curwen’s tape right away: a portentously mucoid 4/4 bassline, luring enough to not evoke compatibility with dancefloors, but more than just a bit mephitic. The darkness of this staccato rivulet reminds of Wolfgang Voigt’s two darkest albums he recorded under his Gas moniker, Zauberberg (1997) and Königsforst (1999). Joseph Curwen relies on the same tactics: since these orderly low frequency blotches are neither meretricious nor indiscernible, their omnipresence becomes a nagging – and ultimately grinding – force. The first track, simply called A1, however, has other distinct qualities. Wordless female vocals, elasticized clangs of coruscating metalization, an echoey braiding of potassium afterglows, violent wind gusts, you name it, it’s all in this haunted house.


Distant electric guitars screech through the dungeon, vitreous bells become caproic plasticizers. And yet is there nutritious light in the shape of stacked synth drones whose immediate, non-convoluted physiognomy and tonal range in major serves as the stupendous scrimshaw, a guarding light amid the convulsive cannelure of compunction. A2 is fluently agglutinated to this gateway and comprises of the same textural range, be it aluminum clangs, adamantly staggering static noise protrusions, tawny aureoles of clandestine efflorescence or the digeridoo-evoking curse’s chromaticity. Side A proves that this not a mere house, but a supernal palace.


Side B continues to aggrandize the enigmatic granuloma, but seems to be perversely mellow in its infancy stage. The soft hue of the bassline is once more audible right from the beginning, but the ubiquitous aura, while not internecine as of yet, makes sure to both augment and amplify the viscoelastic retrojection of eldritch entities. Breathing spirits, sizzling wisps, clashing cordons and prolonged chants of sirens invoke uneasiness at best and fear at worst. While the amount of reverb and echoes enlarge the acoustic architecture and thus the feeling of wideness, a contrapuntal pressure chamber effect is adhered, rising and falling in the shape of benthic exhalations and aqueous respiration. This impression becomes ever-stronger during the apex of B1 with its almost elysian ambience: in lieu of recondite bass prongs, aeriform synth veils turn the titular shunned house upside down, providing a longitudinal freedom that serves as a lavabo.


The aggressive clattering and absconded rufescent illuminants notwithstanding, the effect of said freedom is disturbingly soothing, somewhat lightweight yet bound to the Tartarean gravity that reigns in this ambiguous tryst. The term tryst isn’t chosen arbitrarily; a process of putrefaction, disintegration or even subversion is taking place ever so slowly, now emptying the channels of medulla within the listening subject. This worrisome occurrence is not realized by means of fear and panic, but a serration of languor and softness. Like a fragile cotyledon, B2 takes the color errors of the antecedent scintillae and makes a droning, airy/aquatic cataract out of the ingredients. Contaminative and virulent, Joseph Curwen’s Shunned House becomes a saffron thiazide, surreal even when its endemic set of rules is applied, keen on brimful cascades and translucent harmonies. The actual endpoint, mind you, shatters the cocoon via the resurrection of the muffled bassline, fizzles and flashes aplenty and insanitary decortications. It is a Hauntology album after all.


As is the case with virtually all of Joseph Curwen’s releases, Shunned House is a turbulent affair, relying on stormy bedlams, metallic rhizomes, a glimpse into the abyss… followed by a quasi-ethereal counterpoint of comparatively mellow synths, thus making this effort a unique take on gigantomachy. The two long-form compositions are only divided into two parts for the sake of convenience, as there is neither a distinct progression taking place, nor is that kind of epiphany embedded which usually closes a story. The aesthetics of Shunned House are open to scrutiny. This turns out to be an advantage though: once Joseph Curwen’s arrangements are detached from actual stories as penned by Lovecraft, there is no need for the listener to link certain noises, incidents and emanations to actual persons or – gulp – apparitions anymore. It is now the soundscape that counts, the horrific atmosphere, the raucous reticulation of eerie ephemera. Shunned House still remains close enough to Lovecraft’s poetic chaos theory to transmute the general written atmosphere into arcane sounds. Since the textures are also densely layered and cohesive throughout both sides of the artifact, the first tape of Invisible City Records is a wondrously gruesome experience, which is exactly what the cloak-and-dagger artist has in mind all the time.


Further listening and reading: 


Ambient Review 385: Joseph Curwen – Shunned House (2014). Originally published on Oct. 29, 2014 at