“I looked back for my comrade; he had stripped off all his clothes and laid them down by the wayside. My heart was in my mouth; and there I stood feeling like a dead man. Then he made water all round the clothes, and in an instant changed into a wolf.”
The werewolf has gripped the human imagination in its clawed paw for centuries. The quote above is from Petronius’s Satyricon, thought of as one of the earliest novels in Western literature, dating from the first century AD (the word lycanthrope too is derived from the Greek). But ancient Greece can by no means claim to be the source of the legend: in fact, wherever there are wolves, you’ll come across fables and superstitions about werewolves. Hence you’ll find them elsewhere in Europe: the Norse had their version of the tale, as did the Finns and the Russians.
However, some of the deepest-held beliefs and fears on the subject are to be found across the Atlantic Ocean. In some parts of Mexico, parents lay out mirrors and knives in their children’s bedrooms, emblems thought to ward off werewolves. In Paraguay and Brazil, seventh sons are feared as potential lycanthropes (or “lobison”), and in Argentina they had to take extraordinary legal measures to prevent parents killing such offspring – the president of the country is automatically appointed the godfather of any seventh son. Even in areas where the wolf is not the most feared predator, the story remains essentially the same: for example the Quechua people had the tale of the “runa uturunco”, the were-jaguar, which walked through the forest on its two hind legs, and was famed for its strength and bloodthirstiness.
“Runa Uturonco” is also the name of the first track on the new collaboration between the prolific sound artist Daniel Menche, and the experimental guitarist Anla Courtis. That the project has resulted in an exploration of such a shocking topic is in itself no huge shock: when you expose Courtis’s Argentinian roots to Menche’s particular interests, it seems almost inevitable. Other Menche releases have included albums entitled Beast Resonator, Wolf’s Milk, Unleashed, and Feral, but the theme he keeps coming back to is that of blood: Blood Sand, Bleeding Heavens, Radiant Blood, Beautiful Blood. Even his blog is called “What Does Blood Sound Like?”. The title of this new album refers to a tribe in northeastern Peru who paint themselves red, and whose name means ‘blood’ or ‘the colour of blood’. It seeps everywhere.
Such organic subject matter may initially seem to be somewhat at odds with Menche’s methods, which often involve the recording and processing of inorganic environmental sounds. His Kataract record famously involved recordings from waterfall “white noise”, and Yagua Ovy takes from the land, from snow and from rocks. When Jackson Pollock was asked if he worked from nature, he responded “I am nature”, and Menche through his art merges the meanings of the word: the external (the natural world), and the internal (the instinctive). He is interested, to invoke another of his album titles, in the Blood Of the Land: the idea of Earth itself as a living organism which is to be respected and feared, a concept that dates back through time, linking civilisations as otherwise disparate as ancient Greece and the tribes of Latin America.
While often building from these simple, quiet sources, his live performances can become extremely visceral, physical affairs. Last year in a solo performance, I saw him holding contact mics to his throat like he was about to slice through his own jugular: he really doesn’t need anyone else’s help to construct something intense and terrifying. Here though he has the sympathetic ear of Anla Courtis, who has previously worked with the musically malicious likes of Lasse Marhaug and Birchville Cat Motel, and who brings an unconventionality of approach that equips him well for working with Menche. On “El Relincho” (which means “the neighing”, and is also a place in Venezuela), it is in fact difficult to attribute the sounds to the respective artists: there is lot of metal on here, both guitar-based and otherwise, and the clanging, screeching sounds ultimately twist, bend and splice themselves into one gnarled, horrifying narrative.
On the aforementioned “Runa-Uturunco”, Menche leads the listener into a dark wilderness through shingle and stone, while around him Courtis builds a sense of menace into the story, a deep sense of foreboding, with his cracked guitar rumbling like a gathering electrical storm, an impending violent transformation. When it breaks, the downpour builds in intensity until it becomes a howl, a savage roar from an indefinable form that indeed sounds part nature, part beast, part human. As it retreats back into the shadows, I’m left musing that, as thrilling as the recording is, there is in fact nothing new to what Menche and Courtis are doing here. Yagua Ovy is merely the latest addition to a canon which stretches back millennia.