Scylla Abysses Critique Essay

Scylla and Charybdis, in Greek mythology, two immortal and irresistible monsters who beset the narrow waters traversed by the hero Odysseus in his wanderings described in Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII. They were later localized in the Strait of Messina. Scylla was a supernatural female creature, with 12 feet and 6 heads on long, snaky necks, each head having a triple row of sharklike teeth, while her loins were girdled by the heads of baying dogs. From her lair in a cave she devoured whatever ventured within reach, including six of Odysseus’s companions. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books XIII–XIV, she was said to have been originally human in appearance but transformed out of jealousy through the witchcraft of Circe into her fearful shape. She was sometimes identified with the Scylla who betrayed her father, King Nisus of Megara, out of love for Minos, king of Crete.

Charybdis, who lurked under a fig tree a bowshot away on the opposite shore, drank down and belched forth the waters thrice a day and was fatal to shipping. Her character was most likely the personification of a whirlpool. The shipwrecked Odysseus barely escaped her clutches by clinging to a tree until the improvised raft that she swallowed floated to the surface again after many hours. Scylla was often rationalized in antiquity as a rock or reef. Both gave poetic expression to the dangers confronting Greek mariners when they first ventured into the uncharted waters of the western Mediterranean. To be “between Scylla and Charybdis” means to be caught between two equally unpleasant alternatives.

Rhyton aims for something straight out of Greek mythology — to fuse themselves into a single being, like Hermes and Aphrodite, or the two-faced, eight-limbed primeval humans of Aristophanes’ eulogy in the Symposium. In the past, the band (guitarist Dave Shuford, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Jimy SeiTang, and drummer Rob Smith) has made music with a basis in folk forms that was periodically destabilized by controlled improvisation. The process demanded close communication between the members, and they’ve talked about their continual drive to get closer to each other musically. “There is a great unity within the interlocking elements,” Shuford said of 2014’s Kykeon, “almost as if the band takes on the form of a chimera,” another freak of Greek mythology, three distinct beasts fused into one.

On Navigation by Starlight, the band blows right past the musical structures of Kykeon, aiming to evaporate as operators of instruments, melting into the scenery and, in turn, one another. The record feels largely like an excuse for the three musicians to see how well they can read each other’s minds; they do it so well that it’s easy to forget you’re hearing (at least) three discrete instruments at any given time, becoming absorbed in the fluidity of the sound. SeiTang and Smith chase groove with an unwavering focus, showing their skills especially when they recede into the background, moving the pieces both forward and circularly as Shuford, by turns tenuous and frenetic, scratches around the edges of melody without ever finding a comfortable pocket.

“Lovejoy Vapor Trail” is about a comet called Lovejoy C/2014 Q2, which surprised astronomers in 2014 by leaving a trail of sugar and alcohol behind it as it rounded the sun. “Lovejoy” starts by trudging woozily, its tendrils reaching out in the dark; picking up speed, it passes through Hendrix, plucking blues from the abyss; closer to its slingshot around the sun, it rolls through the pure buzz of Deep Purple. It’s a dense, tangy piece of music, lightly glazed in warm synth drone.

“Scylla and Charybdis” navigates more tenuously. Scylla and Charybdis were sea monsters of Greek myth, sisters who guarded an ancient strait and could drink the entire ocean in three gulps. Greek ships were either confronted by Scylla on one side of the strait or by Charybdis on the other; both summoned whirlpools that crunched ships like ballpark peanuts. Shuford’s guitar quivers and folds over itself, representing a disturbance of the water that never quite boils over but instead spawns reflections and reverberations, giving the piece a feeling of compact infinitude. Bass and drums thrum below the surface. The menace never quite shows itself, perhaps because the movement swirls rather than propels.

It’s on this more tenuous piece that the band shows just how well they can move together. Fifteen minutes in, Shuford’s guitar has fragmented itself to the point where the notes and their imprints become indistinguishable from each other; SeiTang and Smith are locked in so tight it’s hard to pick the sounds apart. In some ways (the lack of more formal arrangements, the acoustic instruments that helped color Kykeon), Navigation feels like the warm up to a grander statement by the band. But it’s also the only chance we’ve had so far to hear them full-on pursue their — grotesque? blasphemous? — desire to fuse into something beyond the bodies they inhabit.

    01. Lovejoy Vapor Trail
    02. Scylla and Charybdis

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