Punish, Honey, the new LP from Vessel (a.k.a. Sebastian Gainsborough), is apparently dedicated in some way to England. So says the press release: "Combined with an interest in notions of national identity, Vessel asking himself the question 'What does "Englishness" in music really mean?'" At first read, that excerpt makes it sound like the Bristol producer might be half-baking a college thesis. Does the record really explore "Englishness"? It would probably be easier for an English person to answer that, but sure, once or twice it veers in a BBC Radiophonic Workshop direction. The track "Black Leaves and Fallen Branches" drums up a glum, eldritch, prototypically English atmosphere with its title and has a sound to match, a limp procession of metallic echoes and droopy, modular-sounding flute melodies. Even including this example, however, Punish, Honey is never as over-the-top English as something like the Ghost Box label. One could argue that some of the album's rhythms might be an homage to Jamaican soundsystem culture in the UK, but that's as far as it goes. Vessel has already proven himself too inventive to overindulge in conscious retro-ism.
Another note from the press release indicates that Gainsborough prepared a variety of instruments before he began the music-making process: "sheets of metal as percussion, sawing up bikes to make flutes and creating harmonic guitars all by his own hand." The record accordingly has a unique palette, one that's kind of sepia-toned, made of iron and tin, and abrasive but slippery. In this approach, it does call to mind some English antecedents like Zoviet France and Coil, both of which incorporated homemade instrumentation into their post-industrial explorations. Pieces like "Red Sex" evoke Coil in spirit as well; its grinding, dogged march and crazed portamento lead line are surreally aggressive in a similar way.
Despite its many nuances, Punish, Honey remains a cohesive effort; the portamento from "Red Sex" pops up again on the sputtering finale "DPM," where it's deployed in more of a "final" way, in tandem with a hoover-esque synth sound. "Drowned in Water and Light" is another LP highlight, its staggered lurch creaking and heaving toward a towering apex while channeling the sounds of the Far East.
Earlier Vessel records emphasized a disattention to the grid, and while most of these new tracks are a little more taut in their construction, there is enough entropy going on to ensure that the album isn't a complete departure. But it is still a departure. There is nothing nearly as ethereal as the vaporous "Aries," a standout from Order of Noise, Gainsborough's last LP. The closest he comes is on the cyberpunk roll of "Anima," as the song's ghostly, brooding synth feels of a piece with, or at least like an immediate descendent of, his looser past work. On Punish, Honey, Gainsborough has stepped up his sound design, but he's done so with a newly brutal approach. One hopes that he hasn't entirely abandoned his earlier, more atmospheric sound, but as career turning points and transformations go, this album is an accomplished one.