Soundwalk Collective featuring Patti Smith

A shimmering ambient tone, an electronic underlay to the lulling chatter of crickets, makes way for the unmistakeable voice of Patti Smith, quietly intoning, ominously, “The killer road is waiting for you / like a finger, pointing in the night” … Killer Road is unlike any album that Bella Union has released, a deep, dark, illuminating and meditative journey into mortality and motion, into fear and doubt and, eventually, death.

Behind the music and concept of Killer Road is international trio Soundwalk Collective – Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli & Kamran Sadeghi – plus Patti Smith’s daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, who conceived an immersive exploration of the tragic death of Christa Päffgen. Better known as Nico, the Velvet Underground chanteuse and solo pioneer, Päffgen died while riding her bike on the island of Ibiza in the summer of 1988. Ironically, she’d recently got her health back, after fifteen years of heroin addiction. It was Nico’s body’s reaction to its new sobriety, and the fact she was cycling at the hottest time of the day, on the hottest day of the year, that was to prove her undoing.

In the years before she died, Nico had not neglected her creative muse, writing poetry that would never be published, or heard, until now, in the form of the title track of Killer Road that opens the record, followed by eight interpretations of Nico lyrics predominantly taken from classic albums such as Desertshore and Drama Of Exile. And who better to get inside the head of an artist with long-lasting connections to both rock music and poetry, and who lived for the majority of her life in New York, than Patti Smith?

The roots of Killer Road lie in a fortuitous meeting on an airplane bound for New York. One passenger was Patti Smith; the other was Crasneanscki, the Ukrainian-born American sound artist who founded Soundwalk Collective as a series of walking guides to cities that create a more idiosyncratic and evocative understanding for the listener, before his collaborative venture turned to musical frameworks for field recordings, from text (for example, words by Holocaust survivors) to the sounds of the sea, or specific musical concepts.

Crasneanscki was returning home from eastern Europe, where he’d been recording gypsy musicians; Smith had been in Tangier, to visit the burial site of French literary legend Jean Genet, as part of her ongoing mission to commune with her idols. Given seats next to each other, the pair swapped stories before Crasneanscki talked about a project he’d stored away for years, about Nico’s last hours, her death, and those crickets…

“I was not sure, really, what I had in mind,” Crasneanscki told international culture magazine Zoo, “but I wanted to have a sound piece that would basically use the music of crickets – the intoxicating quality of their sound – with the poem that Nico wrote in Ibiza just before her death, and finding some kind of connection between the voice reading the poem and the sound of the cricket that’s so exhausting – they’re killing themselves by singing to the point of exhaustion.”

Smith told Crasneanscki that she loved the idea, and the very next day, she was at his SoHo loft and recording. Smith, he recalled, “was able to enter into those words and bring life to them. It was the most amazing experience and collaboration after fifteen years of working with many, many artists and she was definitely one of the most powerful people that I have ever had the pleasure to work with.”

Smith was already a fan of Nico’s unique performance, and her half-spoken, half-sung delivery: “that was interesting and instructive for me when I was young because I had no ambition to be a singer – I was simply trying to deliver my poetry – as she did – in a unique way,” Smith told Zoo. She also appreciated Nico’s influence, “to have such a bold delivery of bold songs by a female in that period.” Smith was able to repay the spiritual debt by paying to rescue Nico’s beloved harmonium – which underpinned so much of her work – from the pawn shop (another connection was the fact both artists had created seminal albums produced by John Cale).

The lonesome drone of Nico’s harmonium makes a late appearance in Killer Road, as part of the haunting and hypnotic electro-organic weave, like an aural heatwave, pulsing and sweltering. Sometimes you hear ocean waves and footsteps, or the thrum of honeybees; the panoply of sound subtly shifts as Nico’s view would have changed as she cycled that day. But then she had a heart attack, fell and hit her head, and was lying by the sound of the road, to a backdrop of crickets, before she was discovered and taken to hospital, but died later that night. “That captivated me,” said Smith, “the idea of merging her language with what was perhaps the last sound she might have heard, besides her own breathing.”

Smith delivers a commanding and mesmeric performance, and even sings on “I Will Be Seven” and “Fearfully In Danger” – where the last harmonium Nico owned is introduced, alongside the sound of one of the world’s biggest organs, built in Napoli: “a very celestial tone,” according to Crasneanscki, “and I thought there was something about Nico laying down, looking at the sky – there was something about her soul levitating, moving up and leaving her body.”

Killer Road was initially a live audio-visual experience, at the French Institute Alliance Francaise In New York as part of 2014’s Crossing the Line festival; subsequent performances took place in London and Berlin with Crasneanscki joined by Soundwalk Collective colleagues Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi, plus Patti Smith’s daughter Jesse Paris. Finally, we now we have the recorded version, a poignant, profound, imaginative exploration and tribute nearly 30 years after that fateful summer’s day.