Drew McDowall (SCT)

A Thread, Silvered and Trembling


Scottish composer and musician living in New York City. In the 1980s he was a member of Psychic TV (later Throbbing Gristle) and later Coil, contributing to some of their most important work. In addition to his solo career, he boasts collaborations with Kali Malone, Caterina Barbieri, Robert Aki Aubrey Lowe, Hiro Kone, Varg, Puce Mary, Shapednoise and Rabit. In 1978 with Rose McDowall he formed the art-punk trio Poems. After his experience with Psychic TV, he performed regularly with Coil for several years, becoming an official member in 1994. He moved to New York in the early 2000s, creating Compound Eye, a collaborative project with Tres Warren of Psychic Ills. Since 2012 McDowall has focused on solo production, releasing four albums and touring North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. Beginning in 2018, he presented a live audiovisual reinterpretation of a seminal Coil work, Time Machines, at numerous international festivals. In May 2023, Dais Records releases Lamina, a 6-CD retrospective box set of his work. Drew McDowall’s lifelong interest in an elegiac style of solo bagpipe playing called pibroch (ceòl mòr in Gaelic) is the inspiration for much of his earlier work.

This form, traditionally used for tributes to the dead, blends modal drones with flickering dissonances and plaintive melody that evokes an ancient and solemn mood. His latest work released in May 2024, A Thread, Silvered and Trembling, incorporates and transforms these elements through exploratory electronic processing, weaving an electroacoustic tapestry of strings, shudders, voids and voices, alternately disembodied and displaced. Co-produced with engineer Randall Dunn at Circular Ruin Studios in Brooklyn, the four pieces in the collection capture McDowall at his most elevated and elusive, a slave to the ineffable, “that which refuses to be said.” McDowall’s palette here is unusually eclectic, coming from a dynamic orchestral ensemble arranged by Brent Arnold and consisting of cello, viola, violin, harp (LEYA’s Marilu Donovan) and French horn. Oscillating between hidden electronics and enigmatic, sometimes ghostly orchestrations, the album moves with a seething energy, soaring into elegant and restless crescendos. The first two tracks are inspired by a liberating hijacking and inversion of a dark biblical story (and a cryptic and strange brand of simple syrup in the UK).

The opening track Out of Strength Comes Sweetness brings chills with short echoes and resonant pads, before moving into the album’s centerpiece: the 14-minute saga And Lions Will Sing with Joy. A murmuring electric storm of shrill strings and disorienting drones gradually becomes darker and denser, until suddenly there is a crack in the clouds, revealing mutated choral voices and a shimmering harp. McDowall describes the track as “an incantation to help usher in a pause and a new beginning.” The second half of the record evokes a deep wild animism shot through with spiraling luminosity. In Wound and Water sways with harp, plucked strings, and eerie cello paddles as lush layers of bewildered electronics hang in the twilight. There is no resolution, only a faint gradient of fragile dissipation, leading to the album’s harrowing and climactic finale, A Dream of a Cartographic Membrane Dissolves. 

Elaborate voices (credited in the liner notes of The Ghosts Who Refuse to Rest) twist, whisper, and come together as the rest of the ensemble hones in, ready to strike. Then great, tragic blows from strings and horns lash the sky, assaulting it with force.The fallout is poetic and inevitable, raining embers into a dark sea.But the journey and catharsis of A Thread persist long after the silence.Like much of McDowall’s multifaceted catalog, this is music of immanence and alchemy, attuned equally to the sacred and the profane, the tile and the mosaic.