In the title of his second album as Vessel, Sebastian Gainsborough interjects a comma between two words originally linked by Emily Dickinson. “In vain to punish Honey – / It only sweeter grows – ” wrote the 19th century poet in one of her later works, a couplet as enigmatic as any she kept hidden until her death. But there was a hint of masochism there, and Gainsborough teases it out further into something more like BDSM. “Punish” becomes a plea, “honey” a pet name. With a single punctuation mark, Vessel turns the borrowed words into a startlingly intimate confrontation.
Punish, Honey, the follow-up to the Bristol producer’s muted debut, Order of Noise, roils along a sequence of tortured biological rhythms. Gainsborough promises illness with opener “Febrile”, a minute and a half of silence disrupted by sudden clatters of percussion, but the songs that follow feel more like motion sickness than a spiking body temperature. Seven-minute centerpiece “Anima” batters its moving parts around a thin but unrelenting bass line like insects swarming the only streetlight in a remote farming town. “Red Sex” seems to point to Joy Division’s “She Lost Control” with its gusts of steam and industrial thumps, but quickly upends its own mechanical stability with queasy, winding synth lines. It breathes like an organism experiencing an unconscious adrenaline response, sick despite itself, brewing a slow panic.
Like his fellow UK fearmonger The Haxan Cloak, Vessel can be hard to listen to by yourself on a full stomach. But there’s a sense of play inside Punish, Honey that also calls to mind James Holden’s brilliant record from last year, The Inheritors. That mischievousness might actually make this a scarier album; at least Haxan Cloak’s Excavation was straightforward about aspiring to horror. Gainsborough doesn’t give up the game so easily. Like a wild animal, his work is furtive and unpredictable. At points, it’s even fun; despite its uneasiness, “Red Sex” could easily scan as a banger in the right context, and there’s a strange, subtle yearning to the cellos that creep behind the drums on “Drowned in Water and Light”.
Gainsborough gets that what makes Dickinson’s poetry so haunting isn’t its melancholia but its refusal to explain itself. Punish, Honey moves forward powered by the tension between what it keeps hidden and what little it shows.
Essential Tracks: “Red Sex”, “Anima”