Cruel Diagonals 'Disambiguation' Is a Lonely, Decay-Obsessed Wonder
The brilliant debut album from Megan Mitchell's experimental electronic project brings together a field recordings, disquieting beats, and an eerily clear voice.
Mariah Claire Tiffany
Megan Mitchell has recently been working as an archivist at a medical library, cataloging audio recordings of the human body doing things that the human brain only deals with passively. She's been listening to beating hearts and wheezing lungs, clips that sound jarring out of context. She's downloaded them all, and she plans to use them as foundations for her compositions in the future. "Even if you're working with the most dull subject matter, you're going to come across something that surprises you and reengages your intellectual fervor for whatever it is you're dealing with," she says over the phone from her home in Oakland as something metallic clanks in the background.
What engages Mitchell is decay. Disambiguation, her debut album as Cruel Diagonals (premiering below), is a captivatingly eerie wash of experimental electronic music. Each of its radon-heavy songs grew out of field recordings that Mitchell captured in the Pacific Northwest, usually by "activating the space," banging on a rusting sheet or swiping at a metal plate. The sounds that thrum through the tracks were recorded in abandoned environments—partly because they provide her with more interesting acoustics, partly because she got used to them growing up near a naval base in Alameda, California. On Disambiguation, noises either crawl into the mix and leave before the listener has a chance to guess at their origins, or they mingle to the point that focusing on anything else is impossible.
Mitchell sometimes splices these snippets of decomposition into a rhythm, but if there's "something really interesting tonally," she uses it as a "jumping-off point" for a melody. A classically trained vocalist, she has a crystalline voice that wouldn't sound out of place at a midnight mass. And while she's been "trying find a way to challenge myself so I don't just sound pretty," she doesn't augment her voice here. Instead she uses it as a disruptive force, swirling around diminished minor keys. Mitchell's presence only ever makes a passage more disquieting. Dave Segal writes in the liner notes that the record "could only constitute pop in a world where Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre appear on late-night TV talk shows." But if Jimmy Fallon reanimated the dead, Mitchell's music would still be oblique.
Lonely, too. "Enmeshed" is almost atonally placid, briefly broken up by an insistent rhythm at the front of the mix, before it falls into 20 seconds of silence. The album closes with a spoken-word section that Mitchell delivers cold and despairing: "I give myself / It isn't enough / Submission by omission." Mitchell was responding to "an extreme feeling of alienation, of just dealing with depression." She says that she has this "detached necessity[...] this compulsion to retreat and to not be part of a larger community, because I find it exhausting."
But even when it seems discordant, Disambiguation is searching for some sort of order. The interplay between her voice and the decay beneath it is one half-resolution. "It was my attempt at trying to make sense of incorporating these really metallic, jarring, grainy, lo-fi textures and field recordings with my voice, [and] kind of meeting in the middle" she says. That ideal props the album up thematically. In library sciences, "disambiguation" is the process used to differentiate between two homonyms. It's a way of defining a term (or a person) and avoiding any confusion. In the wake of the presidential election, that became a political endeavor. "I was really trying to hone in on the disambiguation project as a non-library sciences term," she says. "As an ability to sort out what makes sense or what is fact,' whatever that even means any more, versus straight-up lies."
Still, this isn't a direct record. Mitchell's lyrics are often inaudible, and when the rhythms do come together on, say, the mottled and muted techno of "Render Arcane," they're quietly sinister rather than furious. "I think that, in itself, the tension that exists in the sonic elements of the album are reflective of the tensions that I was feeling at the time of composing it as well. It's a sense-making thing."
This is part of what Mitchell describes as a "Type A compulsion to curate things." Since graduating with a master's degree in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Washington, she's worked as the audio archivist for Randall Dunn (a founding member of Masters of Bukkake as well as a producer for Sunn O))), Boris, and Earth), and she's spent the last three years running Many Many Women, an index of over 1000 non-male musicians who create avant-garde, improvised, and unconventional music. She's about to work on fleshing out her research essay about "a more equitable music canonization," arguing that archivists should "actively seek marginalized and underrepresented artists for inclusion in curated music collections." Mitchell is always organizing, always reworking and reanalyzing.
It's here that Cruel Diagonals really intersects with Megan Mitchell the archivist. "What strikes me as being most fascinating and intellectually engaging is that the material is endless, right? There's some statistic out there that says we'll never get through even the backlog of material we've created as humankind, which should be pretty obvious. It's just that it's constant." So are the sounds she can pull out of an abandoned building. It's just a matter of listening to them properly.
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