This is the first in a projected triptych of albums to be released by Bella Union over the next year under the heading ‘The Perfect Vision’. The records take their inspiration from the works of three French poets: Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud and René Daumal.
‘The Peyote Dance’ is titled after Artaud’s 1936 book based on the his transcendental experiences with the Rarámuri. To the uninitiated, these are a native Indian tribe who lived in the Norogachi region of Copper Canyon in Mexico.
So the story goes, Artaud was seeking a cure for an opioid addiction. Substituting one drug for another probably seemed like a good idea at the time and, while ingestion of the hallucinogen mescaline of peyote cactus plants did not provide a magic cure, it doubtless inspired his darkly surreal poetic visions.
Others texts sourced for this album were written by Artaud in less happy circumstances after his return to France, where he remained in a mental asylum in Rodez undergoing electric shock therapy.
Stéphan Crasneanscki, the founder of Soundwalk Collective, travelled to the Sierra Tarahumara to record on-site and clearly found this to be an immersive experience. He says: “On an atomic level, there is no separation between you and any other organism: trees, leaves, flowers, but also stones and sand. There is no duality”
With these field recordings, the backing tracks incorporate the sound of walking in a Mexican canyon, distant chants, clashing sticks, a crackling fire and the whistle of blowing wind.
The album’s opening track,Una Nota Sobre El Peyote, beautifully recited by Gael Garcia Bernal, evokes (in Spanish) Artaud’s journey by train and horse to the Tarahumara mountains the Chihuahua region. A tribal drum beat is the only instrumental backing and these percussive rhythms are a feature of the album as a whole.
But it is Patti Smith’s charismatic contribution that provided the real focus of the record. She revisits the words inspired by the landscape seeking to channel the Frenchman's troubled spirit by listening, reading and improvising to the tracks in the New York studio. “The poets enter the bloodstream, they enter the cells” she says.
Quotes like these could conceivably be dismissed as pretentious were they not voiced by Patti Smith, whose wisdom and integrity is beyond question. Thanks to her, Artaud’s grotesque, poetic imagery is invested with a measure of profundity despite the undeniable bleakness of the words.
Indian Culture begins innocuously enough with the line “I came to Mexico to make contact with the red earth” but then rapidly descends into the depths with a stream of explicit imagery including references to dead vaginas, sodomy, parasites, fuck fests, whores and bloody buttocks. There’s no flowery versifying here!
More dark rituals and sacrilegious musings are summoned up in Tutuguri: The Rite Of The Black Sun and, its companion piece, Tutuguri: The Rite Of The Black Night. These portray a godless universe; the latter includes the declaration that .
This is relatively mild stuff compared to Alienation And Black Magic. This subjects the listener to around eleven minutes of relentless negativity dwelling upon the “reflux of the nothingness”. Here is assuredly the hard rain Dylan warned of where black is the colour and none is the number and after this it comes as no great shock to learn that Artaud subsequently went insane.
Leonard Cohen sagely observed (in ‘Anthem’) that “There’s a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in” and the light after the darkness on this record comes in the form of Ivry, the only track written by Smith. This poem, part spoken part sung, was written in homage to Artaud’s last hours and serves as a kind twisted lullaby.
Undoubtedly, this exceptional piece carries an even greater power in the challenging context, It is also a kind of reward after the bleak catalogue of death, disease and depravity that precedes it.
The song throws into relief the bold and uncompromising pessimism of an album that Patti Smith fans will embrace but others will find harder to love.