Frozen Niagara Falls is a landmark in Dominick Fernow’s long career.
In a recent interview, Fernow described how an early memory of seeing a performer screaming in a Providence band changed his perspective on noise, metal, hardcore — much of the music he’s spent his career interpreting as Prurient. “Every time I heard a scream I thought, ‘This is somebody who needs help’, rather than as an act of aggression or power,” he said. It’s an important distinction that has lingered under the surface of many great screamers, from Michael Gira’s howls of “THIS IS MY DAMNATION” on Swans’ ‘Beautiful Child’ to Margaret Chardiet’s shrieking laughter of “I DON’T BELONG HERE” on the title track of Pharmakon‘s recent Bestial Burden. That sensation has never felt clearer for Fernow than eight minutes into his new album and his gagged screams on the opening track ‘The Myth Of Building Bridges’.
There are no words to be made out here, just dumb, animal terror. As apocalyptic swirls of static and lush synths rise like water in a hurricane, Fernow sounds like he’s desperately trying not to drown. Later, on the closing ‘Christ Among The Broken Glass’, he speaks in an exhausted, half-asleep whisper over softly falling rain finally drizzling to silence. The storm is over; he survived. It’s the 90-minute struggle between those two moments that makes up Frozen Niagara Falls – Prurient’s masterpiece.
Frozen Niagara Falls feels distinct from Fernow’s massive discography as Prurient (not to mention his many hours of music as Vatican Shadow, Exploring Jezebel, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement and more). One of the biggest distinctions is the releasing label; Profound Lore is an important name in metal, but it feels like a perfect fit for Fernow’s music too. Many of the label’s bands channel the awesome power of nature in their material; for example, the title of Agalloch’s Marrow Of The Spirit (the best album from Profound Lore, simply because it’s the best metal album of this era) is inspired by a line from Henry David Thoreau’s back-to-nature memoir Walden. Similarly, and despite the impotence implied in the title, Frozen Niagara Falls surges with natural power as Fernow explores a personal, inner nature — something that proves to be as brutal and destructive as any outward catastrophe.
Depression and chemical dependency wreak havoc on the landscape of people’s lives, like personal natural disasters. At times, Fernow puts you in the eye of the storm, as with the subdued ‘Cocaine Daughter’, which hints at impending destruction quickly delivered by ‘Falling Mask’ where frothing screams of “TO BE HUNGRY/TO BE ON COCAINE” make for one of his most disorienting, and upsetting, deliveries. The centerpiece, ‘Greenpoint’, which rounds out a trio of 10-minute epics anchoring the 13 other tracks, soundtracks a walk through the wreckage of a friend’s past with murmurs about alcoholism, waking up in Beth Israel, and the East River being where “the suicides go”.
‘Greenpoint’ and the prickling follow-up ‘Lives Torn Apart (NYC)’ feel like elegies for the rapidly disappearing Brooklyn of Fernow’s past, a darker place that fertilized an art scene big enough to eventually choke itself. The first time I ever heard of the neighborhood the song is named after, it was a warning from a cousin who lived there. It wasn’t a place you wanted to walk through alone at night. Now Greenpoint, and Williamsburg south of it, are prime real estate; wealthy land growing culturally barren.
Frozen Niagara Falls is also one of Prurient’s most accessible works, with Fernow’s arrangements constantly pulling you along. It’s not an endurance test – he wants you to hear everything. After setting a grim scene with the opener, second track ‘Dragonflies To Sew You Up’ pulses with a romantic synth melody and driving drums. ‘Traditional Snowfall’ spits acid, but listen close: you can just make out a faint melodic glint that blooms into ‘Jester In Agony’’s forgiving ambient fog. Even the 14-minute title track, as glacial and towering as the frozen falls themselves, is split in half by ‘Cocaine Daughter’ and ‘Falling Mask’, one final blast of wind before the storm passes on ‘Broken Glass’.
The intertwining dance of memory, pain and fantasy that make up Frozen Niagara Falls bring to mind an equally defining work from 2015, cartoonist Don Hertzfeldt’s 15-minute short World Of Tomorrow, which recently swept the Sundance Film Festival. Using the same fantastical brushstrokes to reflect on some harsh truths, World Of Tomorrow follows a stick-figure girl as her time-traveling adult self shows her a future fueled by cloning and Singularity-inspired bio-enhancements. Facing death, her ageless clone reflects on the “sad, long life” she and all the other humans lead, but concludes: “I am proud of my sadness because I know I am alive […] You are alive and living and the envy of all the dead.” Frozen Niagara Falls echoes that sentiment in all its devastating sadness, pain, horror, and beauty — Dominick Fernow is alive.