Rendering political chaos into cathartic release and a barnstorming live show into an equally arresting album, Gazelle Twin and electronic drone choir NYX take us on a trip to the bruised heart of deepest England

Deep England. The idea is a strange one. Rolling green hills and sun-kissed pastures. A village fete soundtracked by birdsong. Church bells echoing through a rural idyll. It’s a quintessential Englishness that’s referenced throughout literature. And fittingly so, because it’s almost complete fiction. It’s also the title of a new collaborative record from Gazelle Twin and electronic drone choir, NYX.

“Hand in hand, here we cry our rage,” declares the press release. “Summoning a lament into the ether, a divine androgynous force, a transcendental purge of the dizzying chaos of post-truth Britain.”

“It was all very much catalysed by Brexit,” says Elizabeth Bernholz – the composer, musician, producer and method behind Gazelle Twin’s madness. ‘Deep England’ grew from her 2018 album, ‘Pastoral’. Coming off the back

of the 2016 EU referendum and the UK’s ever-shifting political landscape, it was a sinister, satirical techno snarl against what Britain had become.

“I was pinpointing what it was to be English and what my identity is and has been growing up here. I wanted to highlight that rose-tinted, chocolate box cliche of ‘ye olde’ England.”

Highlight it she did, with ‘Pastoral’ being met with widespread critical acclaim – although, intriguingly, the seeds of its mutation into ‘Deep England’ were planted even before it was even released.

Sian O’Gorman, one of NYX’s three creative directors, takes up the story from her native New Zealand.

“When NYX formed, we wanted to create a project where we got in touch with the amazing female electronic artists we all love. I made a list of people we wanted to work with and Elizabeth was at the top.”

She duly sent an email to Bernholz , who replied the same day, and they arranged a call the following week.

“We instantly hit it off. It was basically love at first sight. We were talking about ‘Unflesh’,” recalls O’Gorman, referring to Gazelle Twin’s 2014 release. “Then Elizabeth said, ‘Actually, I’ve got this new album I’ve been working on…’. When she sent it over, I immediately thought, ‘Oh my god, this is just perfect. It’s already beyond what I was even imagining’. I felt as if I was holding this gem no one else knew about.”

“I was just about to release ‘Pastoral’ when the opportunity came through, and I knew there was no way I could turn it down,” says Bernholz. “Choral music is at the core of everything I’ve tried to create and achieve as a solo artist. So the chance to work not only with a choir of amazing singers but one with electronics was a dream project. I was like, ‘Yes, yes!’.”

Work quickly began on expanding ‘Pastoral’ into a live show. This was initially slated for December 2018 at The Pickle Factory in London, but such was the buzz it generated that they relocated to the larger Oval Space. The following year they took it to a new level for the London Jazz Festival, packing out the auditorium at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“I think it was a couple of days after the Southbank show that we thought, ‘Hey, let’s try and record this’,” says O’Gorman. “So ‘Deep England’ went from being this epic live performance to straight into the studio.”

Before we go any further, what exactly is a drone choir ? The drone itself is a harmonic effect based on a sustained sound – a looped breath, a repeated phrase or a harmonic whine – which the choir both create and then build on.

“We use electronics and the foundation of a drone to create infinite possibilities of sound with a small selection of voices,” explains O’Gorman. “We can then layer upon the drone and create many different timbres using our own acoustic voices and digital expansion of them. The drone is the canvas and our voices are what’s painted over the top.

“I’ve been working with choirs and opera choruses for most of my life.

I’ve always been passionate about the power and collective synergy of singing with other people. In the last decade or so, I’ve got a lot more into drone music and the sound-bath experience. I also began playing around with my voice, beyond acoustic manipulation and moving more into digital.

“I remember sitting in a sound bath one day and thinking, ‘What if you just had loads of women singing in a circle, and a really long continuous format of toning, gongs and singing bowls going on at the same time?’.”

photo: jamie cameron

While the concept intrigued her, O’Gorman didn’t quite know what to do with it until she came across multi-disciplinary artist Philippa Neels, a friend of a friend from New Zealand.

“When I told her about my idea she totally got it, helped me put the message out there and grab the people in, and it’s evolved from there.”

Named after Nyx, the Greek goddess of night, NYX now have three creative directors – O’Gorman, Neels and Joshua Thomas – and seven core members. As well as creating their own solo projects, they’ve also collaborated with the likes of Hatis Noit, Alicia Jane Turner and Dead Light. NYX and Gazelle Twin couldn’t be a more perfect pairing.

Containing five reworked pieces and three original compositions, ‘Deep England’ has taken ‘Pastoral’ to twisted new heights. The disquiet of ‘Glory’ has been augmented with pendulous church bells, ‘Folly’ has quadrupled in length – four minutes of even more hissing, scratchy, terrifying choral distortion – and the choir deployed to full force on heady, aggressive techno stonker ‘Better In My Day’.

New addition ‘Fire Leap’ is an eerie, repeating recorder melody backed by unnervingly soft vocals, while the title track is a pagan-inflected medieval drone that could come straight from an Ari Aster film. It’s both exciting and menacing in equal measure. But how did they decide what to chop and change from ‘Pastoral’ to create it?

“As soon as I heard ‘Pastoral’, I knew there were tracks that could really expand,” says O’Gorman. “Although if I’d had an infinite timeline, I’d have done every single song off the album because I loved it so much.”

“We had some core favourites we couldn’t leave out,” continues Bernholz. “And then there were others we didn’t end up performing at the Southbank.”

This was in no small part due to the acoustic opportunities it presented, which they were both keen to exploit.

“We cut a few songs from the Oval Space’s hour-long show and rearranged them for the Queen Elizabeth Hall – I think that performance was around an hour and a half,” says O’Gorman.

“We were looking at it from a position of, ‘How can we distort this further? How can we expand on it? How can we get to these little pagan journeys a bit more?’,”adds Bernholz.

When it came to the album, they were careful not to go too overboard on the track length, conscious they wanted ‘Deep England’ to be pressed on vinyl. Do they have any standout tracks?

“Sian’s arrangement of ‘Glory’ turns it into something vast in scale – you feel as if you’re running at full power,” says Bernholz. “That goes for all of the tracks, actually. I equally love Sian’s version of ‘Jerusalem’, which starts with Ruth Corey, an incredible singer from Ireland, and ‘Folly’. But it’s hard– I can’t honestly say that I have a particular favourite.”

“I love ‘Folly’ too,” agrees O’Gorman. “It’s so intense. Marta, our outstanding recording engineer who’s the mixing master of our universe, added these fantastic Auto-Tune devices I would never even have thought of. It turns them into glittering, glissando fucking intense things. It’s just amazing. On a technical level, I love ‘Better In My Day’. Every time I listen to it in the car, I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is a club banger!’.”

If ‘Pastoral’ was born from a reaction to 2016, things only intensified when work began on ‘Deep England’. Raw energy seeps from the album’s every groove. Was it hard to translate such passion into musical language?

“So much of it is just the feeling coming out and us tweaking it into music,” says Bernholz.

“A lot stems from the exercises Sian does with the choir – the warm-ups, the movements, the various singing techniques that get right to your belly. Singing is the ultimate expression of your body. It goes from very guttural to deep staccato, from yelps to huge booming choral vocals. And the electronics bring those out even more.”

“You’ve explained it perfectly,” concurs O’Gorman. “The way I always describe it is that we’re dancing between the divine and the disgusting. It feels very much like those two things are the exact same to me. ‘Glory’ sums that up – we’re all wailing, letting out these incredibly dissonant frequencies that are bashing against each other. The whole thing is a release. Philippa calls it a transcendental purge, and that’s exactly what it feels like.”

It certainly seems there should be a purge somewhere. Since the first ‘Deep England’ performance, there’s been another general election, Brexit has happened and we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. Surely the emotions spawning ‘Pastoral’ have only intensified?

“Yes, definitely,” says Elizabeth Bernholz. “Working with NYX, becoming part of an ensemble and releasing that music as a group with very similar frustrations – there’s a shared rage. Not everybody will feel this way, but as the pandemic has gone on and Brexit has tightened, I think we’ve realised what we’ve lost. There’s more of a gathering of common rage, a feeling of, ‘What the fuck! What’s happening? What are you doing to us?’.

“So this kind of coming together is a bit of a saviour. It now feels as if people are joining with one another, rather than everyone being out for themselves. To release this ensemble record, with the themes we’re portraying – it kind of makes sense, weirdly. I wish the reality wasn’t that things have become even worse than we imagined they might, but maybe this unifying approach will ultimately save something further down the line.”

Considering the chaos swirling on ‘Deep England’, it’s an optimistic view but a welcome one all the same. Hopefully, that transcendental purge will ebb and flow into the real world. And soon the grass will become greener.

‘Deep England’ is out via NYX Collective

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