A testament to working within boundaries
You might not realize it, but you’re probably familiar with Jesse Draxler. Remember Daughters’ You Won’t Get What You Want? He did the album art for that. Poppy’s I Disagree? He did the album art for that one too. He’s also designed pieces for Nine Inch Nails, Deafheaven and even upscale brands like Yves Saint Lauren and Ferrari. Chances are, people are at least somewhat familiar with the guy. After years spent with his feet planted firmly in the world of visual art (including everything from photography to film), Draxler released his first foray into music, Reigning Cement, on Sept. 4, 2020. The album was put out in tandem with a 100-page photography book.
For Reigning Cement, Draxler acted as both a creator and a curator. Drawing from a series of field recordings he took in the industrial area surrounding his Los Angeles studio, Draxler provided a group of over 20 musicians with the same 34 sonic elements. Each artist in the group (ranging from rockers such as Street Sects and Dylan Walker of Full of Hell to Ghostemane, the industrial hip-hopper often slotted into the amorphous genre of “Soundcloud rap”) was instructed to create a piece using only these elements, with the inclusion of vocals being an exception (Draxler’s affinity for collage is well-documented, which is expertly channeled in this concept).
Draxler’s bare recordings consist of sounds one might hear in their day-to-day lives—the hum of a construction site, garbage trucks, alarms—but dismiss as mere background noise. But for most of the artists featured on this project, they represent something discernibly musical. Their ability to fish rhythms and melodies out of these noise fragments is perhaps the project’s greatest strength. Not only does it make for an engaging listen, but it’s also a testament to the brilliance of these artists and to the impressive nature of creative minds in general.
Given that the world of experimental music tends to be rather hostile toward anything that even remotely channels “pop music” values, Draxler and co.’s willingness to imbue Reigning Cement with a sense of songcraft is particularly admirable. Perhaps the best examples of this are VOWWS’ “Them,” with its gothic vocals and infectious industrial stomp, and TR/ST’s “Dissolve,” a similarly brooding piece that manages to excise a melody out of what sounds like a jackhammer pulverizing a concrete slab.
And while some of the album’s cuts are rather formless (Draxler describes these tracks as “sheer noise” in the album’s Bandcamp description), they nevertheless serve a valuable purpose on the project. These pieces help contextualize the record’s poppier moments, as well as contributing to its overarching themes of urban decay and decadence with their desolate, heavily textured atmospheres.
These tracks invoke images of bleak, dystopian landscapes. “Jezero: Cycle 5” by Lisa Mungo and “Metal Violets” by Thirst Church, for example, evoke a sense of space straight out of Eraserhead. Other tracks have a similarly cinematic feel; Reeko’s darkly seductive “Impossible Cycle” transports one to a seedy, subterranean underbelly like the club in the beginning of Irréversible. Given its ability to elicit a visual response, it’s certainly fitting that the album was released alongside a photography book.
While Reigning Cement‘s runtime definitely could’ve ended up feeling overstuffed and samey, its foundational concept mostly saves it from this fate. It definitely would have benefited from having two or three less tracks, as the album wears thin at certain points, but this is far from a dealbreaker. It might sound paradoxical, but by assigning his collaborators a strict set of creative boundaries, Draxler enabled a lot of diversity to come through on the album, which keeps things entertaining throughout. In an interview with The Creative Independent, Draxler spoke to the merits of placing limits on oneself:
“A strict limitation can free you a lot of the time, because when you limit yourself, you’re freeing yourself of everything outside of that limitation… If you’re a really creative person and have a good imagination, there’s an infinity inside of every limitation.”
If finding infinity via limitation is Draxler’s objective, then he’s certainly accomplished it. Reigning Cement beautifully speaks to the duty of the artist: making the most of your boundaries and bringing beauty out of the mundane.