Album Review: King Midas Sound - Solitude
At this point, I’m not even sure I can remember how I discovered the group King Midas Sound, or what, at this time in my life, prompted me to begin listening to their debut album, Waiting For You.
I came to the album about two years late, finding it in either late 2011, or early 2012. This would have been at a time when I had a desk job that allotted me a lot of free time to scour the internet for new music, and was also in the financial position to purchase it.
Released in 2009 via the Hyperdub label, Waiting For You is like looking at a copy of Blue Lines through a funhouse mirror; almost always dark and at times rather menacing in its tone, there was still a layer of accessibility buried somewhere underneath—a slinking, slithering groove you could ease your way into if you gave it enough time.
King Midas Sound, in its original incarnation, was a collaborative effort between singer and poet Roger Robinson, vocalist Kiki Hitomi, and the notorious producer Kevin Martin, known for his abrasive electronic output under the name ‘The Bug.’
Perhaps it was the stark photograph that adorned the cover of Waiting For You, as well as the stark music found on the album itself, but I was quickly drawn into the world of King Midas Sound—so much so that I went as far as to pick up Without You, a remix album, released at the tail end of 2011.
Tastes, and interests, change—at least for me they do, and over time, I found myself listening to King Midas Sound less and less. And following the release of a Record Store Day-associated single, “Aroo,” in 2013, I really lost track of the group and kind of was operating under the assumption that King Midas Sound weren’t really a thing anymore.
As it turns out I was wrong, but also kind of right.
In a recent, and somewhat difficult to follow (from a timeline perspective) interview with The Wire, Martin and Robinson discuss what wound up being the dissolution of the group following what Martin calls ‘a meltdown after a show’ a number of years ago. The group made the decision to disband, leaving the recorded material that would later go on to become the outfit’s second LP, Solitude, more or less, lost.
Recorded without contributions from Hitomi, Solitude’s sessions, as Robinson tells it, were fraught; working in Berlin, it was decided during the recording process that the album would feature only spoken word performances from Robinson—no singing. He also was forced to work around Martin’s creative schedule, meaning much of it was recorded during the middle of the night, or as the sun was rising, in what Robinson calls ‘the hottest studio in the world.’
The unnerving environment provided terrifying results—you can hear it in Robinson’s vocal performance; he’s not joking in The Wire interview when he says he wasn’t even present anymore during the sessions. “It was my psyche talking,” he says.
Solitude was more or less finished, from what I can glean, prior to the aforementioned post-concert meltdown that lead to the end of King Midas Sound.
Martin explains that, in a moment of serendipity, I suppose, he ran into Hitomi in Berlin and she inquired about the record the group had done without her; Martin said that it was never coming out, but shortly after that conversation, the album began playing out of his own iTunes library. ‘Riveted’ by what he heard, he reconnected with Robinson, and the two began working on a plan to finally release the album.
Any word you use to describe Solitude is probably not going to do it justice—dark, harrowing, bleak, claustrophobic, terrifying, et. al. You could call it a ‘dark’ album, sure, but that really doesn’t describe just how dark it is—or just how terrifying and claustrophobic it is.
It is, without a doubt, one of the most physically visceral records I have ever heard.
The difference between Waiting For You and Solitude is like comparing apples to a fruit that nobody has ever heard of before—the kind of comparison that would be declared the winner of the recent ‘10 year challenge’ on social media. Yes, a decade has passed between these two albums, but there is little, if any, trace of the ‘old’ King Midas Sound anywhere to be found on Solitude. It’s a desolate, haunting record, that is brought to life by the evocative, compelling imagery that Robinson—a poet, and playwright, creates almost effortlessly.
Musically, the sounds Martin has sculpted on Solitude are a drastic contrast to both the abrasive, confrontational ‘acid ragga’ he makes as ‘The Bug,’ as well as the spaced out, post-trip hop from the early days of King Midas Sound. Of the album’s 12 tracks, only three of them have any kind of beats, or percussion to speak of; on “Zeros,” there is a very faint percussive sound that doesn’t even keep time, or make a truly distinguishable rhythm—it just rises out of the low, rumbling drones and creates a small, perpetual flicker.
Then, near the end of the album, on one of the handful of completely instrumental tracks, “Missing You” features a codeine-slow drum machine sequence that does its best to skitter along, reverberating through the dense, eerie layers of atmosphere.
The tone Martin sets, musically, is about as cohesive as one may expect—this isn’t the kind of album that has a single you can pull from it, or the kind of album where you can remove one track out of it to play on its own, out of the context of the rest. You can’t even really call these ‘songs.’ They are pieces, or compositions, and you really need the experience of listening to all 12—a solid hour of music—to fully grasp the weight of this project.
Robinson’s vocal contributions are truly otherworldly. From the moment his deep, rumbling voice comes in at the beginning of “You Disappear,” if it wasn’t obvious enough already with Solitude, he sets the down by simply uttering two words.
Like the melting ice on trees that fall like tear drops….
The easiest way to describe Robinson’s words is that of a character study, or a kind of fiction, as it were. He builds a world, and even by the third line in “You Disappear,” he places the listener firmly in that world. Solitude is long, difficult look at the emotional fragility following a very difficult break up of two people who were incredibly and unhealthily dependent on one another, told through the bleak lens of the one who had their heart broken.
The thing that Robinson and Martin stress in their Wire interview is that this is a world they’ve created—it’s not necessarily their life. Martin said, “You draw your own conclusions about the protagonists. The protagonists may not be particularly nice people. Maybe they were left for a good reason. Maybe they are the victims of circumstance. Or the victims of a person that didn’t treat them well.”
Robinson added, “It is not actually my life, but it is something in me I had to say.”
This tone and world they create is astounding in its ability to convince—building a narrative that is both wildly compelling but also so raw that, at times, it feels almost voyeuristic to be a part of.
As the narrative unfolds throughout Solitude, it becomes an emotional rollercoaster; the album’s protagonist, as he reflects on his life, descends into both fits of madness as well as harsh jealousy. It’s the madness that is among some of the most evocative to the listener to hear through Robinson’s narration—on “In The Night,” he slowly describes a protagonist who continually needs to do push-ups, even going so far as to do them in a public bathroom if he is out.
Then, later, the character travels to Scotland, walks into a lake, and screams the name of his former love until his voice is hoarse.
It’s the jealousy, and anger, that is the most difficult to hear—like we shouldn’t be listening this closely to something so visceral. On “Who,” he laments that his former lover has moved on, frantically wondering, “Who is she sleeping with now—and what does she do?”
And on Solitude’s closing track, “X,” Robinson’s character possibly finds some resolution, but even then, is still very bitter about what happened. “A love that didn’t last,” he states in the song’s first few lines. “I am now a part of all your exs—look at us now, all having Pad Thai, and deconstructing all your issues.”
The most powerful moments on the record arrive as it descends into its final third, with the double shot of “The Lonely,” and “Bluebird.” The latter interpolates a poem by Charles Bukowski; while Martin builds menacing, oscillating drones behind him, Robinson ruminates on the bluebird that is barely alive within him. “The bluebird in my heart is tired of trying to get out,” he begins, stoically. “He sleeps all day now; his feathers are shedding....he can’t fly like he wants to.”
The former finds Martin moving away from the menacing tones he methodically creates, and favoring something much more lush sounding—melancholic and gorgeous like the loops one can find in pieces by the Tape Loop Orchestra. Robinson, on top of that, is unrelenting with his dark poetry—“I can see the lonely in my face,” he says. “When you get to this age, with no significant other, people treat you like a bad rash.”
From beginning to end, Solitude is an album that has to be heard to be believed—and it’s not even an album so much as it is an experience. It isn’t the kind of record to put on while you’re doing work around the house or when you are expecting guests for dinner. It’s a harrowing look at the depths a person can sink to, and become trapped in, following the end of a relationship as they search for meaning and are seemingly unable to find any.
Solitude is an album that, when listening, heightens your senses to things around you, and as it unfolds, it makes you turn inward, look within your own life, and recoil as you find that you, too, may have felt this dependent, hopeless, and manic.