The Power of Synth: At the crossroads of sound and symbol with Whettman Clements’s deceptively high-minded 1000 faces EP
By Matt DeMello
Small-d d.i.y. is rife enough with musicians’ musicians and songwriters’ songwriters, but every new Whettman Chelmets release seems ever intent on holding court at the crux of two disciplines on an interstellar collision course. Notice I said disciplines, not genres. And sure, by proxy, that’s happening too: the lines between formalist songwriter and abstract ambient sound artist are blurring, and releases like Chelmets’s 1000 faces EP are altogether too happy to drive the zamboni over the skating rink and wipe the slate clean. In turn, he inches his way to as clear a “lane” as I can find in 21st century music: a songwriter’s sound artist.
I officially cannot be the first to notice the allusions to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey strewn throughout the titles, but I think others have overlooked how Chelmets is really playing with the relationship between sound and symbol here.
So much of mythology depends on tangible language to the point where we would have no idea to what degree Chelmets had mythology in mind on 1000 faces if these tracks had no titles. If you’re a super nerd for Campbell (and full disclosure: I spent three months in 2018 developing an ill-fated podcast pilot with the Joseph Campbell Foundation), that gives us the bare minimum of mythological decoration, or what the man himself would call Joyce’s “pornographic approach to art”.
It’s right at this spot that Chelmets’s music is offering something that might be impossible for conventional storytelling: a chance to call into question how much language and decoration have to do with extracting the emotional power of the journey itself, against the visceral subjectivity of harmonic and timbral relationships in instrumental music. Or in visual art, is it the line with which we draw the devil that makes the image symbolize evil, or the color? Visually, 1000 faces thinks it has more in common with Chuck Close than Edith Wharton in so far as cover art means anything. Anyone who has seen Empire Strikes Back has an idea of what an “atonement of the father” looks like. But absent the surface propaganda of the oh-so-quoted line and the goofy costumes, what does it feel like?
We all know what pandemic feels like and words are just not enough. Even the first musician to win a Nobel Prize in Literature is releasing music in 2020 that is as much about sonic atmosphere as its lyric sheet. “Murder Most Fowl” might get its point across even with its instrumental tracks and no vocal or lyrics at all.
Pulling from the times, 1000 faces ends on a cliff hanger Chelmets refers to as “Boon of Ordeals”. The composition’s tonic hums, psychadelic chimes, and vhs-like clicks never decide on being tense nor serene. Like a badly needed walk in the park after a long day of googling whether secret police are constitutional.
Now for all that grandiosity of perceived intent in the face of apocalyptic headwinds, 1000 faces feels very cheeky and modest first and foremost, not unlike the work of a cunning trickster god. The UFO lobby jingle in the first half of “Guarded Threshold” remembers listening to an ambient EP the way we read an Anthropology PhD dissertation should seem against the grain in the age of vaporwave Dadaism, if not outright spinning our wheels. Tempering the
implied arrogance of Big Artistic Statements with an approachable, if near-adolescent, flippancy works for Chelmets the same way toilet humor and parody helped bring Zappa’s most avant grade ideas down to a pop consumer culture earth.
Setting itself even further apart from much of non-lyrical music, each track on 1000 faces runs quickly through distinct musical movements with the finesse of classical compositions even for their miniscule lengths to the point where the track divisions themselves might be entirely arbitrary. “Road of Trials” starts out so murky that, like any great adventure, it’s impossible to see the “Chariots of Fire”-worthy synth pop crescendo coming on the horizon over the next minute.
And like a true student of Campbell, Chelmets tells me he has never read the seminal text from which 1000 faces extracts its title. To his credit, even if he did, many of the 30 ‘stations’ of the hero’s journey do appear absent, even in titles. Matter of fact, 1000 faces traffics exclusively in stations surrounding traditional storytelling beginnings, or what Campbell calls the “call to adventure” (through a 2020 filter, it becomes a “Call To Help” here). Which is maybe a way of saying, for whatever new artistic territory Whettman Chelmets is actually trying to break into through whatever end-times maelstrom we found ourselves, he's only just getting started.