Long-term inhabitants of damper latitudes are familiar with the signs of an incoming rainstorm — the tension and heaviness in the air, the colour of the sky, the taste on the breeze. The opening of Machinefabriek’s “Crumble”, though calm, contains such warning signs, and sure enough the deluge soon arrives. At first it’s not clear whether rain or a waterfall is heard, but eventually the water is falling so fast and hard from the sky that the microphone seems to be crackling and peaking, the recording itself disintegrating under the weight of the downpour.
A musical evocation of the power of nature, realised with help from violinist Anne Bakker and vocalist Edita Karkoschka — a straightforward enough concept, right? After all, artists have been revelling in the elemental sublime since the time of Caspar David Friedrich and earlier. And yet the rainstorm endures for only a short space of time, leaving in its wake feverish singing, tense rumbles, and uncertain crackle and hum. Huge crushing bass pulses are cut off suddenly with a razor-sharp blade. The violin plays rapid, agitated arpeggios. Karkoschka murmurs, her spoken words broken by hesitation or editing. The music flits from figure to figure, unable to gather momentum, seemingly listless like a ship in the eye of a storm.
What is crumbling here? What deluge is being remembered, being anticipated, being feared? In the Netherlands, home of the man behind the Machinefabriek moniker, one Rutger Zuydervelt, the thought of inundation leads naturally to the thought of the crumbling of the land (much of which was reclaimed from the sea and sits below sea level); to say the word stormvloed is both to invoke the memory of the terrible North Sea flood of 1953, and to anticipate the dangers posed to the nation by rapidly rising sea levels. Any attempt to depict this tension would not succeed if it limited itself to depiction; the ghosts of past, present, and future, the grief and fear and hope, must also make their presence known, at least as shadows in the background. Accordingly, Zuydervelt brackets his storm evocation with more expressive passages.
And he doesn’t forget about the beauty that can be experienced on a walk through such a collapsing landscape. Towards the end, as more violin parts are added and the water returns again, the tone shifts from tense and anxious to calm and bright, the low sun reflected dazzlingly in pools of water. Perhaps a rainbow appears. I’d like to place “Crumble” alongside “Sneeuwstorm” in a category of the vast Machinefabriek discography that concerns natural phenomena, yet there is something both more personal and somehow more real about the former that makes me puzzle, that makes me wonder — how does such an instability as the landscape of the Netherlands resolve itself?