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A rumble ricochets around Dilston Grove’s high church walls as six men growl into their mics. The low hum coming from British artist Matt Stokes’s video installation then quickly moves into an intense reverberation that will leave your bones quivering. ‘I’ve always been really interested in the way extreme metal vocalists use their voice,’ Stokes tells me during the final tweaks of installing ‘Cantata Profana’.
Since winning the Beck’s Futures Prize for Britain’s best emerging artist in 2006, Stokes has embedded himself in northern soul communities and the punk scene in Austin Texas, to study the driving force behind these countercultural groups.
‘One of the key factors behind “Cantata Profana” was meeting Der Kurt from Paroxysm,’ says Stokes. ‘I saw him play a gig at the same time as the idea for the work came about.’ Meeting the German grindcore (a mixture of thrash metal and hardcore punk) singer Der Kurt inspired Stokes to bring together vocalists from the Netherlands, Norway, UK and the US. It’s a kind of microcosm of the extreme metal scene, which came about in the 1980s through tape trading between singers around the world. Stokes and his collaborator, contemporary classical composer Orlando Gough, then let them experiment in the studio. ‘I had a note stuck to my desk for ages with “anti hymn” and “anti anthem” written on it,’ Stokes says.
What transpired is a guttural and immersive audio work, matched by some extraordinary video footage of the singers as they wring out the sound. It’s an exploration of the body’s capabilities. ‘The film clearly illustrates the physicality involved,’ Stokes says. ‘The way the vocalists use their body to make sounds as well as the intensity of emotion.’
Although there’s a hint of traditional choral composition, there are moments when the noises don’t sound human at all, which make you ponder the possibility of some technical tampering. ‘It’s what they do with their voice,’ explains Stokes. ‘I want to change the perception of people who wouldn’t normally listen to extreme metal.’
The ecclesiastical setting of Dilston Grove, a former mission church in Southwark Park, certainly aids the acoustics. ‘The architecture helps the voice travel,’ says Stokes. ‘Which creates an element of immersion so you can switch off from the outside world. I tried to design this feeling of possible transcendence.’ Whether or not you’re a believer, you’re sure to be uplifted by this sonic masterpiece.