Sitting on a low cost flight to Iceland, I’m intensely looking forward to some of the world’s most compelling nature. To a sense of rest and calmth that I tend to miss too often. To volcanoes with unspeakable names. And to mermaids popping up out of blue lagoons, asking me if I’m available for a solid conversation. Or, in case that’s really impossible, some cuddling.
Even more so I look forward to unravel the secret of that sparsely populated country. The secret that is responsible for the country’s musical fertility. How else can one otherwise explain the production of so many long time favorites of mine? Gus Gus, Sigur Ros and Björk, they all originate there.
I couldn’t think of a better moment to draw up an article about serpentwithfeet, the project of Baltimore native, and now Brooklyn based Josiah Wise. A man who comes with something radically new. Something that – in pop music – is almost only matched by before mentioned Björk‘s experimental work. No wonder that he cites her as one of his biggest influences and heroes.
It would lead us far going into all details of Josiah’s life. Exploring the background of this unique person, it reads as a prime example of how one gets shaped into the persona and artist one becomes. How he got raised in a very protective way. How he felt like and was an outsider for a long time. How he got confronted with love, pain, depression and suicidal tendencies. How he, after spending time in places like London and Paris got immersed into the New York City queer scene. It is there that it all started to make sense. That it resulted in the creative and genius musical outburst we are now privileged to welcome.
Focusing on the musical aspects of that life, little Josiah grew up listening to Christian and gospel music. Joining his parents to church he always considered those masses to be about music and performance, far more than about God or religion. Often one could see little Josiah dancing between the aisles.
As a teen he took on classical voice lessons at a local university in Baltimore. It became as well his concentration in college, although he did rebel against it. Later on, when he got access to CDs and videos, he pursued the R&B track through the likes of Brandy, Destiny’s Child and Björk. All of which would inspire him and shape him into the artist we now get to know, 28 year old serpentwithfeet.
serpentwithfeet – Photo credit: Krisanne Johnson
serpentwithfeet, with a pentagram and the words ‘heaven’ and ‘suicide’ tattooed on the head and wearing a large septum ring, presents himself as a classical vocalist. Albeit one who merges R&B, dark electronics, dramatic orchestral arrangements, gospel, soul, folk and more into one. Someone who at some point asked himself what would happen if R&B got applied over the classical shit. Someone who integrates his past life and struggles into his work.
Asked about the origin of the moniker serpentwithfeet refers to a phase in his life where he got fascinated by the king cobra and that this is now his attempt at being as seductive as possible. Whereby we’re not necessarily dealing with a ‘he’ here. Gender doesn’t play role, the snake refers to fluidity and agility.
serpentwithfeet – Photo credit: Elliott Brown Jr
The ‘blisters’ EP got released last September, as a 20 minute long EP containing 5 songs, a couple of which were released to critical acclaim in the course of 2016. The album was made and produced together with The Haxan Cloak, the British musician and producer, serpentwithfeet’s Tri Angle label mate and known through his own dark electronic music and his collaborations with Michael Mann and … Björk (on Vulnicura). There is no coincidence.
The Haxan Cloak – Photo Credit: Rebecca Cleal
The tracks on the album easily can be referred to as ‘compositions’, with each one of them being a carefully constructed story, drawn up from past experiences and every time masterfully combining a variety of genres and instruments, the most important one of the latter being that insane voice.
‘blisters’ kicks off with the divine sound of a harp. Upon which a majestic and heavily orchestral arrangement kicks in, only to be countered shortly after by a piece of minimalism. serpentwithfeet will be using those dynamics all along the album. Backed – not for the last time – by a choir, the song strives for vocal perfection. The supporting violin further underlines that perfection only to be halted by the dark electronics that are kicking in.
The melodramatic and sparsely instrument ‘flickering’ holds a piano and strings to which electronica gets added. Together with the ever present choir it serves, or rather ensures that that incredible voice can do its thing. That voice that seems to be capable of doing anything it wants.
On stand-out track ‘four ethers’ the despair expressing vocals are backed by a full-on orchestra, subtle but always expressing a sense of imminent danger. Complemented by a visually stunning video – with serpentfeet dancing in it – it is a true masterpiece.
A vibrating guitar kicks of the shorter ‘penance’ which then further develops into a gorgeous little piece of art, finished off in a determined way by a sharp violin.
‘redemption’ finally is my favourite track on the album: a song heavily supported by the choir but dominated by serpentfeet’s vocals that undisputably come straight from the heart. It is a worthy conclusion of this EP, which hopefully will see its continuation soon.
Released: September 2016 (Tri Angle)
Must listen: ‘blisters’ – ‘four ethers’ – ‘redemption’ – AND the other two songs