Written by R. Taylor Robinson
One listen to Syd Barrett’s music and his style becomes abundantly clear; his homegrown brand of surreal music has an aimless way about it, entirely unique to the popular sound of his era. Using fanciful melodies and long drones, he drifts around, surprising the listener at each turn and forcing them to expect the unexpected. Barrett’s work not only made him one of the essential “psychedelic/avant-pop” musician of the sixties and seventies, but also inspired countless others to join the ranks of the then-burgeoning genre. But that’s old news, or at least it seemed so until early 2000 in Padua, Italy when Marco Fasolo and Alessio Gastaldello, heavily inspired by Barrett, formed Jennifer Gentle, its namesake taken from a line in Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam.” The only European band to-date to receive a contract from Seattle-based Sub Pop records, Jennifer Gentle took on the incredible task of reviving Barrett’s musical world of aimless psychedelia. With this aimlessness comes an exploration of those things listener has come to take for granted: the everyday, the mundane.
Valende is Jennifer Gentle’s third studio album and their first to be produced by Sub Pop Records. Bringing Barrett’s experimental space-music to the modern stage, Valende hazily makes its way through a surreal landscape of strange and wonderful sounds. The record has a clear, almost palindromic sequence to it; beginning with the two most upbeat songs on the album, “Universal Daughter,” and “I Do Dream You,” Valende gently descends into a soft mellow tone, reminiscent of a lullaby. From this point it gradually builds again into a crescendo of noise in the Barrett-esque experimental noise-scape “Hessesapoa,” only to decrescendo back into another dreamy-lullaby and finally culminate in an upbeat finale. These waves of volume and feeling in the very framework of the record effectively communicate its wayward theme.
Dig even deeper into the album and its aimlessness becomes increasingly evident, especially in the more mellow sections. Although there is a clear structure to the album, Valende uses its directionless glide to challenge the preconceived expectations of the listener, appearing to build at one point and then drifting off into a daze at another. This purposefully directionless, floating feeling is reminiscent
of French composer Debussy and his “Images Pour Orchestre” from 1912. In both “The Garden (Part One)” and “The Garden (Part Two)” this comparison is especially apposite in the instrumental wandering guitar section. Even the song lyrics represent this directionless approach and a return to the mundane. For example in the chorus of “Liquid Coffee” Fasolo and Gastaldello sing, “I spilled some coffee… on my trousers… on the sofa…” This is evident of their musical and thematic message of aimlessness and its relationship to real life, the mundane.
“Circles of Sorrow,” a melancholy song to say the least, recalls the work of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, a minimalist sound project of the 1960’s whose compositions — sustained, minutely oscillating tones, fittingly labeled “Drone” music — bore a massive influence on composers of the latter 20th century including Karlheinz Stockhausen and Yoshi Wada. Despite its fixture in Western new music, La Monte Young’s drone was directly informed by the tanpura drones of Indian classical music; this, not coincidentally, at a time when many other artifacts of South Asian culture were being appropriated by the American avant-garde and integrated into the growing hallucinogenic drug culture of the 1960’s. The members of the Theatre of Eternal Music, much like Barrett, were deeply embroiled in this drug subculture, and it manifested itself clearly in their music. Their goal was to use these drones and minimal, rhythmically-focused figures to bring the listener back into the present, out of the past and future and focus on the drones themselves (this philosophy coming from the psychedelics that inspired the music). These “drones” are used throughout Valende for the same purpose, to bring the listener back to the present and provide a new look at the mundane.
This attempt to bring to light the commonly overlooked mundane aspects of life is not only successful, but shows that Gentle is an important contemporary of Syd Barrett’s legacy. Through the band’s heady mix of the surreal and the silly Valende, like most psychedelic music, freely lends itself to individual interpretation. I have always felt a very intimate connection to Valende, entranced by its wayward nature and guileless innocence that is reminiscent of the simpler days of childhood, when the everyday wasn’t taken for granted. It’s comforting to listen to, returning the listener back to reality and reminding them that there are still surprises in the world.