ant-zen (act 163), 2003
In the early 21st century, Scott Sturgis had little to prove. He’d already released two of the most powerful and influential power-noise albums ever recorded, Shock Front and Blast Furnace; a dual-barrel shotgun blast of mind-numbingly creative barrages of distortion that met with wide acclaim and helped establish ant-zen as one of the foremost power-noise labels on the planet. When Sturgis announced his third detonation, Exit Ritual, the scene braced itself; would Converter continue its legacy, or had the project overstayed its welcome?
No one expected what Sturgis had unleashed.
Exit Ritual – portentously named, as it was Converter’s last album – was soon discovered to not be power-noise….not really. It’s an album that lives between spaces, creating a broken cradle for itself. It answers no questions, and asks for no quarter. Over a decade later, its power and creativity are as potent as ever; Sturgis seemed to know the project could go no further, and threw everything he had into his virtual meat-grinder. Using the shattered percussion of Shock Front fused to the experimental atmospherics of Blast Furnace, Exit Ritual remains one of the most versatile records in the ant-zen catalog, and by the same measure, it’s also one of the most difficult to assimilate.
The ritual begins with “dronr(itual)”, a collage of matching drones (of course) that loop and repeat with the obviously mechanical sensibility that has dominated Converter since its inception. It’s immediately clear that Sturgis could have made an entire album in this subgenre, but that wasn’t quite enough for him. Despite its beatless departure, the track is still certainly Converter; the malfunctioning-machine whirring and distant, ominously buried vocal samples see to that. It’s drone, Converter-style, and no one else could make a track like it. And here’s the catcher: it’s got a sense of aesthetics and character. First heard in snatches on Blast Furnace, Sturgis is able to infuse his electronics with personality – warped and bizarre, yes, but personality nonetheless – and they’ve reached a fever pitch. The track might be the work of a gifted manic depressive; it’s careful yet confident, and carries an undercurrent of hope beneath the broken surface. Like I said, Sturgis could have made an entire album based on the themes here, but he keeps that at bay, and the ritual continues.
If “dronr(itual)” was Converter’s ode to drone, then “Bloodsex” is its dedication to pop. Perhaps the most straightforward song in the project’s discography, the track centers around a repeated, sonar-like duo of chords, mixed in with another lovingly churned loop that Sturgis is so adept at crafting. When the almost trip-hop and undistorted (!) drum-track slides in, along with a high-pitched synth sequence, the track moves together as one, all dirty shadows and smoky primal air; the track is indeed well-named. Converter has always filled its spaces with offset rhythmic elements as its tracks progress, and it’s still on display here, but it’s more refined and complete.
“Nightmare Machine” is quieter and sparser, treading dangerously close to ambient, but if Sturgis has taught us anything during the first two tracks, it’s that he’s too clever to give in to genre convention. The spaces here are greater, but the mood is still unsettling, and as the pieces of the machine begin to churn and click, we see it emerge from the murk, piece by piece, and we cannot help but be in awe of its cleverly crafted majesty. Converter tracks are famous for shifting palettes midway through, and this track is proof that Sturgis can still do this without making the transition too jarring.
Case in point: “Cloud Eye,” which, after a slyly quiet intro, morphs a furious roaring beast rife with screeching percussion – now this is classic Converter – fed with jagged whip-sawed sequences that scrape discordantly together like some kind of massive runaway farming tool. But halfway through, the abrasion drops away, and we’re left drifting in the eye of the storm indeed, with the memory of our near escape rumbling and echoing just near enough to make us nervous. This is easily one of my favorite Converter tracks, with Sturgis at the height of his manic rusted-metal powers. Only Converter can make a hymn out of the sounds of failure.
It would be easy for me to write 700 more words extolling the virtues of this album, but I’ll restrain myself for the sake of saving mystery for the new listener. Suffice to say, you’ll hear howling buzzing symphonics morphing into cataclysmic eruptions (“In Ruins…”), the sounds of a failing robotic walker somehow made into a dance track (“Order/Creature”), and creepy lurking groans set to minimalistic tribal drumming (“Gateway Rite”). The final three tracks, “Soulstealer”, “Night Swallows Day”, and “Fallen” don’t seem quite as devilishly inspired as the preceding tracks, but their experimentalism and nihilism see Converter at its most potent, if not its most focused. Following on the previous tracks, if Converter were to take the route of dark ambient, this final trio would be it.
Is Converter music, and is Sturgis a musician? The answer isn’t immediately obvious. Exit Ritual is not a safe album, and it’s not necessarily an easy listen, even after multiple goes over many years (trust me). If, however, you define music as the capturing of singular mood and successfully converting (ha) it into sound, then no one, and I mean no one, has ever given voice to sensations like this. Throw out convention and expectation, even those that lie on the fringe, for you’re about to embark on a true classic of warped creation, courtesy of one of electronic music’s most maddest of geniuses.
Streaked with joyfully powerful inertia like the best EBM, as full of yawning awe and looming grandeur as the most evocative of dark ambient; rife with satisfiying spiky slabs of distortion shaped like corroded-steel putty into delicious rhythmic templates as the finest of power-noise; consistently defiant yet cohesive and refined, Exit Ritual is a prime example of boundaries being challenged and shattered.