Sometimes, words fail us.
How can one articulate the feelings of coiled rage, helplessness, and despondency that defined the disorder of the Trump era? Every revelation — of gross corruption, tragic indifference and baffling ineptitude — left us gasping for air, struggling to summarize a world we no longer recognize.
When there is no way to utter an appropriate interpretation of our emotions, sometimes sounds — dark, discordant, troubling noises — are an infinitely more accurate substitution. That philosophy serves as the foundation for My Heart, An Inverted Flame, a San Francisco drone rock duo that took root near the beginning of the long dark.
“I woke up the morning after the 2016 election, and was just super angry,” says Marc Kate, synth player and founder for My Heart, An Inverted Flame. “I wanted to channel that by making the most aggressively dark and nihilistic music that I’m capable of.”
Dark and nihilistic would be one way to describe the sound Marc and his musical partner, Andee Connors hit upon. But even those adjectives fail to capture the negative sentiment coursing throughout the duo’s debut album (out December 11), Plague Notes, Unnamed, Unknown, A Finger Dragged Through Dust (now that’s a serious fucking album title.) Listening to Plague Notes… is akin to traveling through a post-apocalyptic landscape, where every step is a perilous endeavor. There are few conventional vocals (buried under layers of sonic debris) and each track is an ominous, boundaryless adventure, where a claustrophobic atmosphere overwhelms the senses.
Shockingly, the duo is able to create this vast, benighted world with just drums and synths. In the aftermath of Kate’s despair-driven inspiration to create a band, he sought out potential creative partners, and eventually connected with Connors, a veteran drummer in the Bay Area indie rock scene. Connors was the one-time owner of the revered (and now dearly-missed) Aquarius Records, and the two met while working together at the independent music store in the early 2000s (Connors was Kate’s boss at the time.)
Both shared a love for outsider art and had a desire to forge something wholly unique as My Heart, An Inverted Flame. During the band’s earliest creative iterations, the group swelled to four members, including a bassist and guitarist. Feeling constricted by the classic elements of a rock band, Connors and Kate collectively decided to pare the project down to just two members, featuring the unlikely combination of synths and drums.
“There was a point when we kind of lost this really unique narrative that excited me, and we started kind of just sounding like a regular rock band,” Connors says. “So over the course of like two years, we whittled it down to the two of us. We somehow managed to still sound super heavy and full and weird, and we were able to accomplish that without a guitarist or bass player.”
Connors and Kate do not just create soundscapes with their synths and drums — they create entire galaxies. The songs on Plague Notes… are epic with a capital E, sandstorms of noise and squalor and cavernous effects, and none of the tracks feel bigger than the titanic opening number, “You Will Never Hear From Me Again.” Starting off small, with little whispers of electronica, things get serious at the 1:30 mark, when Connors’ death march drums kick in and Kate dials up the synth static. One could envision an entire alien world, where visitors are inundated with storms of acid rain, but instead of liquid droplets, the elements are littered with pieces of binary code. What I mean to say is the song just hits different.
Throughout the album, Kate twists and coerces otherworldly sounds out of his synth rig, blurring the lines between what’s heard and what’s perceived, addling the listener in a disorienting manner. On the “The Metaphysical Swindle,” serrated scraps of energy pulse out, harkening traces of feedback laden guitars and on “The Nameless Choir,” metallic clanks and bilious waves of noise are reminiscent of knotty post-punk bands. One has to scour the songwriting credits to verify that these songs don’t have an army of guitarists deployed.
“I like creating sounds that are as detached from their sources as possible,” Kate says. “I haven’t been approaching this band necessarily where I want my synth to sound like a guitar, but rather I want it to be so overwhelming and huge and dense that you don’t know what it sounds like. The idea was to run distortion and reverb to the point where it just becomes this cloud of sound.”
With Kate exploring the outer limits of synth playing, Connors acts as the perfect complement — dropping huge, bombastic notes on occasion and blending into the background when needed. On “Life Minus,” Connors’ drumming is light and rapid-fire, flickering quietly below the wall of noise, but present enough to add an undeniable sense of tension to the piece. On “The Nameless Choir” — the towering closing track of the album — Connors bides his time in the background for the majority of the movement, before springing to life with a thundering crescendo of kick beats and cymbals in the cathartic final minute.
The album is cinematic in its scope, and that’s not by accident. Kate hosts a podcast called Scary Thoughts that delves into topics of the horror genre, and both he and Connors envisioned the music of Plague Notes, Unnamed, Unknown, A Finger Dragged Through Dust as the potential score for a creepy film. Their natural inclinations tend to favor shifting, tremulous atmospheres that sound less like music and more like formless noise, making a natural fit for film soundtracks.
“As these songs began to emerge, I did begin to imagine an adventurous director possibly wanting to try this on for size as a soundtrack,” said Connors.
Kate and Connors’ world-building exercise will continue, as the pair have a host of new music waiting in the wings. Their second record is essentially finished at this point and part of their third is done as well. They also have plans to put out an EP and to issue some songs through a digital series. Eventually, when the pandemic recedes , both Connors and Kate expressed an eagerness to play their material in a live setting.
Until then, they will live in a world that they have created together — a fully developed ecosystem removed from the current state of affairs. Although the album features only a handful of lyrics — hidden deep below a cacophony of sound and comprised of found language snippets that Kate had collected from corporate emails — a strong argument could be made that it is a deeply political album. It’s absence of poetry and commentary speaks volumes — in a society as fucked as ours, the only recourse is to create a void and then scream into it. I would be hard pressed to find an article or thinkpiece or song that captures my mood as accurately as the blearing, dirge like soundscape of “You Will Never Hear From Me Again.”
“Our approach to music has always been that it is a form of escapism,” Connors says. “This album is certainly a response to what’s going on. We created this terrifying, weird, suffocating paranoid place, but it’s like our safe version of that. In a way, I think recording this music has been a really beautiful reaction to what’s happening. I hope other people can see it that way too.”