Photo by Mel Ponis
Disemballerina is a band that I've unabashedly obsessed over for as long as I've known of its existence. The Portland trio creates something so special, and so arresting, and so confounding, with a level of emotional heft that that I've encountered only a spare few times in over a decade of music writing, that it's nearly impossible to describe. The best way to experience Disemballerina is to listen, and now you can do just that, as the band has posted its latest release on Bandcamp.
On Poison Gown (which will be released shorly on cassette by Red River Family, with official artwork forthcoming from Pippi Zornoza); the band is seeking label partners for the CD/vinyl release), Myles Donovan, who plays viola, harp, and, er, machete is joined by cellist Jennifer Christensen and Ayla Holland on acoustic guitar and bajo quinto. Donovan and I struck up a correspondence a year ago around the release of Disemballerina's masterful debut LP, Undertaker, and I've eagerly anticipated the release of its successor ever since. Now, the wait is over. Poison Gown is painted in the same muted tones of funerary gloom and chamber doom that colored Undertaker so beautifully, though its major theme is of revenge rather than loss. It's a dusky, haunted collection of gently insistent melodies that float in and out of consciousness like an old woman on her deathbed. That thanatalogical mood comes as no mere coincidence; Donovan has spent many of his nights as a hospice worker playing his harp for the dying, singing the dead to sleep with strings and silence.
Donovan is also partly responsible for the thematic aspects of the band's instrumental neoclassical dirges, though all three members contribute. The band trafficks in vengeance and death, historical and otherwise; the title itself is a reference to an urban legend with supposed real-life roots, wherein an aggrieved party would dip a dress in poison and send it to an enemy as a deadly gift, leaving them unwittingly dressed to kill. It's elegant, morbid, and unexpected—Disemballerina in a nutshell.
In an email awhile back, Donovan also ran down the stories behind the deceptively-simple song titles on Poison Gown; we're planning to do a more in-depth interview soon, but for now, he gave me his blessing to share these stories with you.
1. "Impaled Matador"
"This song is really an effort to tell a story; the bull scream starts the record, echoed by the crowd. The first riff is an excited festival, second is mathy tension, the third riff (following the pause and screams) the matador is unexpectedly gored and begins fatally bleeding out, the fourth riff is him being carried out of the festival. During the fifth riff, everyone is entertained, because the bull will be put to death regardless. It's less a criticism of an existing cultural practice and more a symbolization of mutual tragedy and a horrible doomed situation. The screams and crowd noises were taken from a recording of bullfight sounds I gave my now e-xboyfriend when we first met."
2. "La Folia"
"La folia" ("the madness") was a popular tune of unknown origin in both the Italian and Spanish Renaissance, used for improvisations. The viola carries the basic melody of it on the first half of the first riff, and the rest is us. Think big Baroque halls and frilly collars. I was born in the wrong era.
3. "That Is the Head of One Who Toyed With My Honor"
"This song was inspired by a news story I read about a woman in Turkey who decapitated her rapist. The title is the phraise she said after throwing his head into the town square. More than just a great words for living, I thought it was a fantastic response to the shame and silence of rape culture, and definitely resonated with me after spending the past year in therapy dealing at different points with PTSD stemming from experiencing different forms of abuse and violence throughout my life. I wish I could say my bandmates can't relate. I love the slow build of power that radiates from this song, and I hope it helps other people who listen. Sharpening a machete in the background was fun, too.
4. "Phantom Limb"
"This song is about the physical memory when you're haunted by someone who will never be in your life ever again. Imagine a person in an empty bed, continuously rolling over expecting another person to be there, and grabbing empty space instead, and then waking themself up in the process, completely heartbroken."
5. "Year of the Horse"
"This song is meant to suggest focused energy and dream actualization. It is very light and airy, like music wild horses would gallop to in slow motion in a nature documentary or a little girl's Lisa Frank stationary cartoon, with the exception of the ending, which is meant to jar and startle the listener."
"This song was originally written and performed at a memorial service for Shawn Carroll, a nature activist, longtime supporter of this band, and friend of mine and Ayla's, who drowned in a river he was routinely crossing. Like "Impaled Matador," it's an attempt to tell a story, in this case the story of how he died. The beginning of the song (fade in with crickets) is supposed to suggest calmness in nature; things are tranquil, familiar to the subject as he makes his way through the wilderness to the edge of the water. It's very gentle and something like if Arvo Part fucked around with Appalachian music. In the middle of the song, however, there is a key change following the pause, where things are supposed to begin going wrong. There are gradually introduced elements of increased struggle and lack of control implied in the music. At one point, when the strings are doing a sort of blackmetal-ish rapidbowing, the sound of water gushing forth is introduced. This is when he is fighting for his life against the currrent. The last riff is almost Rites of Spring-ish (no joke, I glanced at a timpani lying around in the studio, but was hoping we could create that sort of effect with strings alone) signifying the sudden tragic end of his life."
Kim Kelly is listening to this on repeat forever; she's on Twitter.