Storytelling has been ingrained across most, if not all cultures; we love a driving narrative to get sucked into. In the music sphere, concept albums grab our attention through this very fact – a way to understand and comprehend the music that engulfs you. When the music itself provides an equally cinematic quality, like the works of Roly Porter, it makes the experience even more transcendental. With his new release Kistvaen, available now via Subtext, Roly Porter has continued along the conceptual path in tackling the equally timeless subject of death, and all the rituals that come with it. 

is named after a kind of ancient, granite tomb found in the UK. Specifically, Roly centred on the Neolithic tombs of Dartmoor – in South Devon, England – which are unique in the fact that nearly all these tombs are oriented along the NW/SE direction so the dead could face the sun. Visiting these memorials, Roly and visual artist Marcel Weber (MFO) took on the task of reflecting the duties and sensibilities these tombs reveal through the audio-visual experience, as shown at events including Berlin Atonal and MIRA Festival, Barcelona last year. Their collaboration comprised the six pieces on Roly’s new record, that attempt to express how this forgotten, pagan era and the technologically abundant present are inextricably interwoven.

In keeping with previous releases, Kistvaen occupies a space not easily categorised through his use of field recording, folk instrumentation, and digital processing that signal fleeting moments of his past dubstep routes, drone, and even classical. The dense, electronic quivers that span Kistvaen provide an ominous atmosphere that make sound design perhaps the most apt terminology. Vocal performances from Bragod’s Mary-Anne Roberts, Dead Space Chamber Music’s Ellen Southern and vocalist Phil Owen are heavily embedded into the mix to compound the spectral theme of the record – as if the once dormant dead are wailing into the present, but only occasionally being understood. We spoke to Roly about concept albums, the non-linearity of time and music as an answer to the importance of rituals.
You said your last album’s composition took a very long time and was emotionally draining on your brain and social life. Given the intense subject matter here, and the longer than usual time between albums, was this an equally challenging experience? How was it making this album?
Yes, it’s true although that makes it sound a little negative. It’s a choice and a pleasure to do it and it’s a challenge I love more now than ever before, so the fact that I have an underdeveloped social life, or become strangely obsessed with Neolithic burial sites and ignore my family, is definitely a conscious choice and not challenging in a negative way.
The length between albums, or the real challenge each time, is finding a new texture or language or instrumentation – however you would choose to describe the palette of sounds or techniques that represents the world for each project. I’ve no doubt that to many people much of my music would sound the same, but for me it is important that there is a different approach each time, in the construction of the sounds and structures, so it can take some time to find the right approach. But yes, it does drive me crazy.
All your previous solo releases are somewhat conceptually driven – whether the narrative is more literal like on Lifecycle of a Massive Star or otherwise. In terms of process, does the concept always inform the sonic or do you have preconceived ideas of what type of album, what tools and what sounds you would like to make and/or utilise?
I would like more often to be guided purely by the sound or process, but the conceptual narrative has become a fundamental part of writing music for me. I love music technology, I am fascinated by new tools and approaches in music, and that is the area I spend the majority of my time in – finding new ways to make sound. But at the end of the day, when it comes to actually putting one thing after another, writing something that has a shape, then I need to construct some kind of narrative or compositional structure and pinning that to a concept, like the burial ritual in this case, has become essential for me.
The concept of this album is quite specific in terms of time-space and subject matter – with the Kistvaen’s ties to the Neolithic period in Dartmoor, South-West England – and you utilised field recordings from your visits to Dartmoor itself. What drew yourself to this particular subject matter? Given this project was originally A/V, was it a shared interest with your long-time collaborator, Marcel Weber (MFO)?
Yes, the ideas were developed together with Marcel (MFO) and it was a great experience developing the sound simultaneously with the visual aspect. Marcel and I spent a long time on Dartmoor filming and discussing the narrative. Watching him construct the film and thinking about the project in a visual way definitely helped in its construction. Dartmoor is interesting in that, while it feels very evocative and has a bleak kind of beauty, it would have almost certainly looked completely different in the time we were imagining, so as opposed to making any attempt to accurately portray aspects of the past from a historical point of view, the project became more like a thought experiment around how humans with the same bodies and minds as us, but in drastically different technological eras, would respond to and develop rituals around death.
Despite this specific context, through the Kistvaen, you’ve noted the shared experience of death between the Neolithic age and today; the entanglement of these times, and perhaps all times. This made me think of how Derrida understands death as constituting all life from birth – as an inevitable nothingness – and so all those previously deceased (and those deaths to come) are in fact already with us in the present, some more connecting with us than others – perhaps physically so with say, your great grandparent’s DNA. Having noted the Kistvaen as a ‘gate in time’ in your press release, could you elaborate on your own perspectives to death and our space-time entanglements to other lives? How have your thoughts changed, if at all, when musing on these subjects throughout this project?
That’s a great question, I am afraid I won’t do it justice in my answer, but this is my main preoccupation when trying to understand music. The reference to a gate in time was part of my trying to understand time in a less linear way, or at least to accept that our linear understanding of time is part of our evolutionary perception and not a universal truth, something that is not true in any way other than that we perceive it.
Although these thoughts are counterintuitive to me, something about considering the burial ritual and the comparison between our lifestyles and technologies, made it seem more accessible, as though human histories were stacked vertically instead of horizontally. As my spiritual or philosophical outlook in life is based upon a combination of misunderstanding popular science and various aspects of religion and religious music, there are no prescribed rituals that I engage in, but I have wondered more recently about how important the ritual is for us, especially around death. The feeling that music seems to hint at an answer to some of these questions is what continues to draw me in.
On this theme of death, the incredible Tri-Angle Records ceased to be as of recently. Given that they and Robin Carolan championed such experimental artists like yourself over the past decade, and appear to be the only label you chose to release an album on besides your close friends at Subtext, I was wondering if you had any words to say – a eulogy of sorts – about the label?
I grew up in a time when music felt more tribal, and genre or label affiliations were very important to people. In my teenage years, those musical affiliations and the fashions and lifestyles associated with them were really the defining identity for a lot of people, myself included. Now I feel we are in a more eclectic time, and while that has its benefits musically, part of me misses having those clearly defined obsessions.
The first time I met Robin was at a showcase of Tri-Angle artists in Berlin, and while the output was extremely varied, it felt for me like the first time in ages I had seen a label where that sense of defining the goal or identity of the label was so strong; it was exciting. I couldn’t put into words what that sense was and the output varied stylistically over the years, but in a world where Spotify and other platforms seem to play a big part in reducing the importance of relating to a label as a whole instead of to an artist, I think Tri-Angle did an amazing job of creating that sense of the label as a whole.
For this project, you have collaborated with three vocalists – Mary-Anne Roberts, Ellen Southern and Phil Owen – as well as enjoying collaborations with others such as Paul Jebanasam on Altar, orchestras, many visual artists and of course with Jamie Teasdale as part of Vex’d. Given you find music to be quite an insular experience, what does collaboration mean to you?
I think it is a negative by-product of the incredible technological age we are living in, that it is entirely possible to create a wide range of musical projects entirely on your own. Aside from how exciting and rewarding it can be to collaborate with other musicians, I also feel as though it has shifted the social importance of music for me as a way of communicating and relating to other people.
After years working on my own so much, it feels like the balance between sharing emotions with people through music against pursuing technical development has become skewed. The idea of collaborating and improvising with people, just for the sake of it, is very attractive to me and is the polar opposite of the slow and painful way in which I work when I am on my own.
Whilst you have worked with Phil Owen before, I was wondering how these collaborations with Mary-Anne and Ellen came about?
It was Phil who introduced me to Ellen. Ellen is a part of Dead Space Chamber Music and is involved in an amazing event series in Bristol called Dark Alchemy that I wasn’t aware of before we met. She is an incredible singer, but it was also a real reminder not to take where you live for granted, there are so many incredible artists and events around me from different worlds.
Mary-Anne, I knew from listening to Bragod, who I absolutely love. I had been in touch with her for some time and this felt like the perfect opportunity to work together. Bragod somehow manage to combine the study of medieval music and poetry in a way that makes it feel alive, their work is historically faithful and rooted in research, but feels strangely modern and relevant at the same time, I love it.
Lastly, do you have any other artists in mind that would be dream collaborators? Or similarly – given your Paper Beast and In Fear OSTs alongside your various A/V projects – are there any themes, concepts or music adjunct ideas that you would love to fulfil?
Following the work on Paper Beast, I want to continue to explore some different listening environments and technologies. Aside from its development in gaming, I found that VR spaces became some of my favourite listening environments; the ability to create and control that level of immersion is something I would love to continue to work on.
Roly Porter   Kistvaen   Cover   Su B035.jpg