On his debut album Vulgar Displays Of Affection, the prolific polymath goes solo and digs deep into human condition for a sonic exploration of the self.
As with many creative personalities, trauma and internal conflict are touchstones of Liverpool polymath LUKE MAWDSLEY’s work. Just as his debut solo EP, Obsessive Compulsive was, in parts, a reflection on the emotional ebb and flow of that often-misunderstood condition, his first long-player Vulgar Displays Of Affection is a work derived from therapeutic creativity and compulsive necessity. Drawing on a journal of collected intrusive thoughts, Mawdsley has recorded spoken-word performances bolstered by glitchy soundscapes and chiming guitar, somewhat akin to Tim Hecker, Xiu Xiu or late-period Scott Walker.
Released this summer on Maple Death records, the album also features the production talents of Doomshakalaka/Bad Meds’ own Paul Rafferty as well as the bass abilities of Waffle Burger from Glaswegian garage-troupe Fallope And The Tubes.
Fans of Texan metal may have already spotted an elephant in this particular room: that there’s a striking similarity between the title of Mawdsley’s latest release and Arlington thrashers Pantera’s 1992 opus Vulgar Display Of Power. However, Mawdsley is keen to dismiss any notion of paying homage to a band led by a “white supremacist arsehole” and claims to be much more interested in the “deconstruction of metal as a tool of masculine dominance”.
Despite his aversion to the white male machismo of Pantera, Mawdsley admits that his interest in music does have a childhood root of sorts in another incarnation of masculine Americana.
“I was gifted a country and western tape with, amongst other gunslinger classics, various versions of Rawhide on it,” says Mawdsely. “Dressed in makeshift western attire and whipping a chair with a belt in time with the beat I would listen to this tape till the prairie wind changed direction.
“This kind of percussive experimentation was encouraged by my parents, likely due to the fact that I did not show particular aptitude for much else,” he adds. “I think the physicality and accessibility of percussion as a child was hugely empowering and enabled me to manifest the desires my imagination seemed to demand.”
There are hints of this early infatuation with Western soundtracks noticeable on Mawdsley’s latest release; with tracks such as Misery Gland reimagining the sparseness of Morricone’s compositions, while Little Blanket maps out a prairie landscape in screeching oscillations.
As we talk, Mawdsley recalls other childhood memories which he sees as equally pivotal to his immersion in music and performance. “I was really sick as a baby and vomited a lot. My parents nicknamed me Puke,” he illustrates. “As is consistent with all children at that age, the retching and crying was an innate expression of something troubling I was unable to fathom. My personal pallette of expression has, arguably, expanded since then. However, the compulsion to express through sound has never really felt like a choice I have consciously made.”
Finding a way to process these compulsions and the unconscious is something which can so often be key to coping with OCD. Mawdsley’s approach on Vulgar Displays… sees him process these suggestions and intrusions from the unconscious into spoken-word monologues. He then manipulates the tone of the vocals, creating a sort of obtuse, distorted narration. It is almost as if, by making the timbre of the speech unrecognisable as his own, he has cathartically separated these unwanted voices and ideas from himself.
Another form of catharsis which the artist is keen to tell us about is the freedom he finds through performance. “The relationship between composed music and the infinite circumstantial variables of performance has allowed me to experience some of the most present moments of my life,” he says. “As such, I attempt to open myself to all possibilities. In doing so I allow the risks performance asks of us to exhale the potential these beautiful experiences of shared expression have to offer.”
Having witnessed Mawdsley’s solo performances as well as live shows with his alt-prog outfit Cavalier Song, it is easy to see how he embraces the possibility of risk. His shows are often conducted in an unapologetically insular yet intense fashion; like some sort of insect trapped behind glass.
Over his career the musician has had the opportunity to share bills and stages with acts as various and celebrated as composer Terry Riley, krautrock legend Damo Suzuki or noise rock’s latest poster boys Pigsx7. What allows Mawdsley to take to the stage in the presence of such luminaries with confidence is most certainly the strength and innovative nature of his own compositions. Vulgar Displays… consists of nine such works, each with its own level of lyrical and sonic profundity. From the bubbling pulse of Piss & Leather and the distorted drone of The River Takes It All to Beberian Sound Studio escapee A Grudge Supreme, every track manages to entrap Mawdsley’s unnerving modulated confessions perfectly within its noisy grasp.
In addition to processing trauma and addressing mental health issues, his compositions also tackle a variety of other topics of importance to the artist. Mawdsley has described some of the ideas which appear throughout the album as “shame, disassociation, grief, control and repressed adolescence”. He tells us: “I have made attempts to establish spaces to explore and challenge my own perceptions of the human condition. I’m influenced by a sense of urgency to acknowledge and open up dialogues about more challenging subject matters.”
There is arguably much need for acknowledgment and dialogue at the current moment in time. Certainly, mental health is one area which could stand to be discussed a lot more. In the quarter of a century since Pantera’s paean to aggression was released, it could also be argued that not much has changed in the sense that wider society, as a whole, fails to address these, often crippling, tropes of the human condition. The real “power” of Luke Mawdsley’s creation lies in the fact that he has found one way of doing so.
Vulgar Displays Of Affection is available now via Maple Death Records.