2009 was a prolific year for Omar Rodríguez-López, with a total of six albums released. Cryptomnesia and Xenophanes are comprised of material that was originally intended for the Mars Volta but took a left turn at Albuquerque. Solar Gambling features the magnificent Ximena Sariñana on vocals, as do three of the five songs on the live album Los Sueños de un Hígado. Megaritual is a glorious exercise in trippy jamming, recorded in Amsterdam with longtime Volta member/even longer time brother Marcel.

And then there’s Despair.

Before writing these reviews, I always look up both professional reviews and fan blog posts as a frame of reference. I wasn’t expecting to find high praise for Despair, and I did not. However, a commenter on Rate Your Music noted “I’m alright with this fairly intriguing 39-minute sonic experiment…You might dig it if you enjoy Metal Machine Music…” which lead me to listen to Lou Reed’s masterpiece/pisstake [delete as necessary] for the first time. I had expected it to be harsh, juddering and, well, metallic. It’s actually quite soft and sometimes even pretty. Then again, I am a big fan of guitar effects and well-used feedback, even to the point of borderline unpleasantness, if deployed at the right time, for a very calculated length, and within the context of a greater sound. It didn’t really give me an emotional response, but I found that its fuzzy ambience worked well as workplace wallpaper music.

This made me feel like I was probably missing something obvious, so I canvassed the opinions of my friends. The responses varied from “not particularly interesting but reasonably inoffensive background music to block out people talking while I’m working”, and “I like [the] shifting overtones” to “effing racket” and “the kind of thing that can be a bit jarring if you’re e.g. trying to write a comms plan”. I wasn’t expecting a consensus but must admit I was surprised at the divide between “this is good music to work by” and “I cannot concentrate with this in the background”.

Like Metal Machine Music, Despair is a droney soundscape of effects, but the comparison ends there. According to ORL, “Despair was just when I went back to Amsterdam from Israel, and it was sort of my meditation on Israel, Palestine and Syria, and sort of what the experiences I had had there and the things I had brought back with me.” One of the things he brought back with him was a ouija board that became the catalyst for the concept behind the Mars Volta’s The Bedlam in Goliath. On that album, snippets from field recordings taken during this visit are blended into the song “Soothsayer”. The slightly echoey fragments of sung prayers bookending the track lend an eerie feel that fits the supernatural concept very well.

But they’re also effective because they’re short and don’t overwhelm the song. Despair, on the other hand, is comprised entirely of these field recordings, which were then doctored in the studio. Allegedly, when the original engineer for The Bedlam in Goliath quit, they said “I’m not going to help you make this record. You’re trying to do something very bad with this record; you’re trying to make me crazy and you’re trying to make people crazy.” I think maybe he was actually hearing Despair, because that sounds 100% legit to me. If a torture chamber housed in a grey, brutalist structure suddenly became sentient, this would be the soundtrack to its attempted suicide.

A low-level thrumming serves as a kind of beat, throbbing like a fever blister. A prolonged electronic wail may be a stand-in for vocals, or I could just be experiencing some kind of aural pareidolia. I think if I listened to it any more, I’d start to hallucinate a woman desperately trying to crawl out of the awful, awful sounds. I say sounds, because this isn’t music and these aren’t songs. I’ve listened multiple times, waiting for something to change or progress, but if that ever happens, it’s too subtle for me to notice.

I find some of ORL’s output pretty hard work, but I can usually find something to appreciate, if not understand or enjoy. Even now, I think I’ve been too harsh on Octopus Kool Aid, because I unfairly compare it with Bosnian Rainbows. But Despair isn’t just bad because it sounds deeply unpleasant, it’s bad because it honestly makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. I never thought I’d see the day when a 14:38-long ORL track made me sigh Kif Kroker-style, but here we are. Sputnikmusic’s review called Despair a failed experiment, but I disagree. I think it does exactly what it intends to do, which is why I never want to hear it again.

Track listing*:
In einem Jahr mit 13
Liebe ist kälter als der Tod
Angst essen Seele auf
Rio das Mortes
Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte
Chinesisches Roulette
Angst vor der Angst

*All the song titles are taken from films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, (like “Fear Eats the Soul” from Saber, Querer, Osar y Callar), but I have no idea why they were chosen. I’m guessing it’s because they are all extremely grim.