A dark album holding a mirror up to our dark times, Unravelling, the second record from Channel D, makes for a wholly intoxicating listening experience. Reflecting an age where to switch on the news is to dare ourselves to face the scariest parts of a horror film, resulting in – for an increasing number of us – a state of high anxiety, these are 11 songs which speak of acute turmoil, whether personal or universal.
From Kurdish Iraqi photographer Zewar Fadhil’s dramatic cover image of a distorted, featureless individual, to the often claustrophobic music contained within, Unravelling is an album which explores the shadiest corners of the human psyche, with its themes of alienation, fear, loneliness, insomnia, panic, madness, and ultimately dying and death itself.
Channel D is writer-singer, visual artist and film-maker Nick de Grunwald, whose debut 2013 album Mosaic Of Disarray was described by Q magazine as offering “worldly lyrics, no little panache and a gritty edge” and by Uncut as “dark baritone story-telling”. While that album was much-praised, Unravelling is a giant step forwards, being less a collection of songs and more a cohesive album-length statement.
“I’d had panic attacks and insomnia on and off since 2001, when my mother died in the same week as 9/11,” Nick admits. “Two years ago, things got considerably worse, which is where these songs germinated. I kind of unravelled. I believe these songs came out of that really bad time.
“I hope what I experienced will resonate with anyone for whom the night can play tricks with your mind. Or who find terrifying the daily round of natural disasters, plane crashes, plagues, beheadings and the ravages of war.”
Unravelling was recorded at the fittingly-named Situation Room in Hammersmith, west London, with de Grunwald co-producing with Tim Wills (Ian Brown, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Cure). In addition, it features a supporting cast which includes backing vocalist Yvonne John-Lewis, saxophonist/flautist Andy Ross, guitarist Patrick Murdoch, drummer Geoff Holroyde and violin and mandolin player Bobby Valentino.
From the brooding, slow-burning atmosphere of opening song, Birds When Disturbed, with its echoes of early Sparklehorse and the soundtracks of David Lynch, the serious intent of Unravelling is revealed. “Birds When Disturbed arose out of the insomnia I had consistently,” says Nick. “I was in the process of having to sell the house that had become a santuary, and that’s where I wrote it, the night before we had to leave. It was so eerie and I started hearing noises, all sorts of things.”
Meanwhile the rolling groove of Derelict, with its haunting country-ish tones, is proof that there is some light to illuminate the darkness of Unravelling. More clearly country-influenced still is the 1950s-ish balladry of the Lambchop-like and beautifully bittersweet New Year’s Eve. Elsewhere, the gently propulsive angular rock of Ice In The Water sounds akin to a great lost Mercury Rev cut and features de Grunwald’s electronically-altered voice airing his feelings about passing time and the damage done, but in a joyous, almost celebratory way: “Don’t it make you feel so cold/Don’t it make you feel so old.”
On the far extreme of the emotional scale is Panic, an anxiety attack in song form, with its heart-racingly suffocating arrangement of pulsing tom-toms and spiralling guitars a la Grinderman. In it de Grunwald tells a tale of a nightmarish train journey experienced while in the grip of panic and terror: “Can’t find my breath/Nothing but death”.
Two other standout tracks perhaps lie at the heart of Unravelling: namely the noir soul of Stumbling and the creepy psych-pop of the hypnotic title track. “Unravelling and Stumbling are for me perhaps the key songs of the album,” says Nick. “Fear of nights, fear at night, anxiety and the feeling of everything falling apart when forced onto one’s own resources. General disintegration when normal patterns are taken away. There’s an image in Unravelling of a spider climbing up a disused train in the desert, in the bleakest of desolate landscapes. I really identified with that spider…”
In his own life, Nick de Grunwald has had to face some big challenges, not least in coping with the serious problems of someone close to him, which he found had an acute aftershock effect upon him. “The demand for help with mental health in our society is increasing quite dramatically,” he stresses, “while the NHS is struggling to cope in the face of government cuts. Most people still don’t feel it safe to admit to feelings of depression. Mustn’t grumble or grin and bear it is the British way. But there are too many whose situations have gone way past the ability to cope. Anxiety is rife…the numbers of those suffering some form of ‘mental illness’ rise steadily.”
Nick discovered that he could only make sense of it all by writing these very personal songs. Indeed, once the panic has subsided, there is a clear sense of calm evident on Unravelling, in songs such as the multi-voiced, hymn-like River, with its realisation: “I see lightning/Dead of night/I see light/So white.” In the closing song, the slow-motion Heart Going Home, the emotional storm seems to have passed, for now: “Whatever is behind me/Will soon be gone.”
An intense and often dizzying musical journey, Channel D’s second album is quite some achievement. It gives voice to a disorientated mental world where towns become desolate landscapes; nights become fearful eternities and social events painful instances of alienation.
“It’s a collection of songs dealing with a range of very dark issues and moods,” Nick concludes. “Insomnia, madness, panic attacks, anxiety, even death itself…yes, it is dark!”
But then so is life itself. Unravelling seeks to find the beauty in the despair.