Arrington de Dionyso has talking down pat. There is nothing extreme in the tenor of his voice. His emphases and pauses are nearly immaculate. Words are carefully considered and rarely wasted. His volume is perfectly modulated.
All this is to say that de Dionyso speaks like a fairly normal dude. Yet chatting with the recent Portland transplant last week, after several listens to the Old Time Relijun frontman's debut solo record, Breath of Fire, I couldn't help but dwell on just how goddamn weird it is that he talks in a manner that even approaches normal.
De Dionyso's vocals with Old Time Relijun were always unique, resembling a mash-up between Tom Waits, Frank Black and a large, freaked-out cat. But here, in his solo work, de Dionyso sticks to throat singing, his vocals transcending even the "vocal" descriptor and become instrumentation, yet based on nothing more than a standard-issue mouth, larynx and set of lungs carefully plied into harmonic resonance.
Concretely, throat singing sounds like a cross between a bass clarinet, a Gregorian chant and a belch. Abstractly, it creates a feeling of unshakable eeriness, structurally echoing free jazz while recalling the sounds of sick farm animals (just about everything in the barn), little-kid sound effects (rocketships and under-the-bed monsters) and the dank stone hallways of your imagination's default monastery. As such, the appeal is more spiritual or conceptual than aesthetic. The most immediately attractive tracks are, in fact, those based on (actual) bass clarinet or jaw harp, the latter being the more difficult, de Dionyso tells me. But in either case, the key is that the instruments are tools of mediation, as is a microphone, another device de Dionyso would rather leave in the studio. "It comes down to the sound waves themselves. All sound and light are waves of pulsating energy. By not using a microphone, the energy is pulsating directly from my body and filling the entire space and the space of each body present in the audience," he explains.
His songs are supposed to be a mainline into de Dionyso's subconscious, ensuring that the only thing between them and the listener are unadulterated vibrations "giving voice to the latent forces that normally lay in the underground areas of the individual's link with universal consciousness," he explains with a matter-of-fact mysticism. He continues: "[They're about] primal spaces, dreaming spaces. It's not like a specific human emotion, like 'happy,' 'sad,' 'bewildered' or anything like that."
A few songs into the album, it's still pretty damn hard to believe that this is what anyone's dream state sounds like: crude and almost unapproachably formless, taking little from the shapes of the greater daytime world into the other side. This music makes those shapes worthless, repetitious burdens of being awake. Yet in its chaos and oddness, there's an entrapment at work: the curiosity about where the sound is coming from, perhaps from far beyond the physicality of throat singing. Breath of Fire is almost enough to convince that there is something more than distorted reflections and appropriations in the subconscious.
Arrington de Dionyso plays with Daniel Higgs, Ilyas Ahmed and Cloaca Clock, Wednesday, Aug. 2, at the Towne Lounge. 9:30 pm. $7. 21+.