Watching James Whipple’s career as M.E.S.H. unfold has been analogous to uncovering a conspiracy theory. The more you scratch at the surface of this new piece information, the more intricate the rabbit hole reveals itself to be. It’s a slow process of discovery, as you have to delve deeper into the murky abyss before tracing the next line of enquiry. It’s a journey that never seems to have an end in sight as a dense network of connecting threads reveal an endless web of possibilities for the conspiracy chaser. Whipple’s biography as M.E.S.H. unravels this way through a discography that gradually uncovers a personality behind the music, a reclusive personality, that only ever gives us a mere glimpse of the complexity that lies behind this intriguing musical identity. More of that veil has been lifted than ever on his debut LP, Piteous Gate with the rare press coverage offering a particularly exceptional insight into the artist and the music. Through a couple of interviews, and an obscure stream, some of the mystery is debunked, while new questions are raised, and everything leads up to Piteous Gate, the magnum opus of a musical talent in the bloom of his career.
Piteous Gate is desolate, a suspenseful atmosphere carved out of a few meandering elements that never truly develop into songs. Best described as sonic happenings, the nine tracks that make up the album are intently focussed on their own design. Underdeveloped percussive rhythms and incomplete themes struggle to fulfil their roles in the nascent progression of the compositions, forging ahead to trace a line from the beginning to the end of the album. M.E.S.H. appropriates everything in music tradition, from the subtle playful expression of a piano’s keys to the intermittent growl of a reverse kick, and places it in the context of the diorama that unfurls as Piteous Gate. The music is heavy with innocent insecurities as Whipple tries to convey the ideas behind the compositions through the multiple musical personalities he entertains, without ever forcing the listener into any particular emotive discourse. There are moments of anticipation, like the opening track’s repetitive singular repetitive nature, but they never mature, leaving each song a blank canvas for the listener to interpret in any way s/he prefers. We can take cues from the diary of interviews that we’ve read, but the music is too abstract to ever draw a direct correlation between the compositions and something like the war in Ukraine, which apparently inspired some of the album.
Whipple is promiscuous in the way he contorts the sonic reality of the present. He can go from the muggy dense layers of drones and noise, to the effervescent air of a subtle pad in one song like Azov Seepage, all in the ideal of creating something akin to an optical illusion. “Flood plains, sluice gates, alluvial flows coming down the steps. Rusted infrastructure and hidden depots. Carrion birds picking through stealth equipment.” He uses very visual examples like this to describe his music, negating the visceral element of a feeling altogether in favour of a picture. It would be quite the coincidence if you form the same image in your mind when you listen to a track like that, but what is significant, is that an image forms nonetheless. There’s something in the way Whipple captures the sounds of our industrialised world that is similar to the way Messiaen captured the sounds in nature through his piano. Piteous Gate is incredibly evocative in this regard, but instead of forging ahead in the harsh nature of these sounds, M.E.S.H. manages to grasp the elements of beauty and serenity hiding within them. There’s always a solemn moment of reflection in the compositions. The way that Epithet moves from the abrasive rhythms of a busy street to the slow moving melancholia of a storm drain beneath, shows a level of composed restraint that is often missed in music of this nature.
Piteous Gate has so much to offer, and so much to take in, without ever burdening the listener with some underlying theme. Everything floats on the surface, hiding that dense network of the artist’s musical identity from the listener through compositions that do just enough to peak the listener’s curiosity, without ever engaging him/her at that level. There’s enough on the surface of the music to indulge the listener, and further investigation might only fuel unwarranted suspicions in the way of an unresolved conspiracy theory. And this is what Piteous Gate’s success is largely based on, fuelling the fire of paranoia that eats away at us all without ever emerging as something substantial. It takes us full circle back to the origin and declares resolutely; “everything is as it appears to be”. It’s not always pretty, but there is hope. Piteous Gate is music for a generation raised on inconclusive reddit threads, but at the same time it is the beacon of normality amongst all the speculation. It’s an album of post-modern electronica in the age of sensory overload and it is a very fitting piece of music for the time we find ourselves in.