36 – Shadow Play (2013)

Well I’m finally back from Scotland, in the realm of stable and permanent Internet and free time, and therefore it’s time to review at long last the latest album from the 36 project, Shadow Play.

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It’s funny how, when we actually take a long, hard look at our lives, how much there is that is outside of our control; I think we like to fool ourselves as to how much influence we actually have on the things we do and the things we care about but the reality is that, like shadows, we are controlled by external factors, each one driving us and manipulating us in some way. With that in mind, let us now enter the world that 36 has created on this, his most mature and intelligent album to date.

Opener and title track “Shadow Play” brings forth a Drone sound somewhat unlike anything he’s produced before now, with the possible exception of “Saphron”. These thick, faux-string drones are not the dark and oppressive tracks we heard on Hollow or Lithea, they’re practically optimistic and yearning, if a little excessive at over 9 minutes long. There are still whispers of his old work coming through in the minimal vocals and delicate bleeps but something just doesn’t quite sit well with me; it feels like Uncanny Valley territory as it approaches the familiar but is just different enough to make it strange.

But then the beautiful sadness of “Ofelia” chases it up and we’re plunged right back into nostalgia as the fugue descends and a much more serene and clouded drone fog envelops us and tugs on the heart-strings, balancing quavering synths alongside the lo-fi drone haze. That helplessness certainly comes across strongly here, and the extended track length and repetition make it feel like there’s no end in sight. Yet there is always hope, always an opportunity to break free, something which the delicate “Dawnspace” offers us, quietly feeding buried snippets of birdsong and gently reassuring notes to soothe our troubled souls and blow away the darkness building up.

This streak of great tracks culminates in my personal favourite, and possible all time favourite 36 track, “Breathless”. It reminds me a little of “Shiny Tiny Stars” by Loveliescrushing in the manner which it introduces these pulses, these waves, of ambience towards the listener as well as the heavily obscured female vocal samples. Its tidal nature is paralysing in the same way that I can spend hours just watching the waves lap at the shore; always fundamentally the same but each time slightly different. “Ascension” is something of a curveball in the heart of the album, but a neat one at that; I believe this is actually a reference to the start of the game Bioshock: Infinite, both in the track title and the spoken words that close the piece: “Hallelujah”. Like the game it is a transcendental process; the quirky, grinding synths count down to the hard, juddering acceleration of the vast whining guitars that tear through the core of the track, but ultimately fading away as the atmosphere is abandoned and we see black in the cockpit window, propelling us away from the troubles in “the Sodom below”. It’s a surprising track, but a corker, 36 to the very end.

“Eclipse” comes in like some reappropriated “Arc” from Hollow, a shimmering wall of barely moving light that slowly but surely becomes corrupted by the darkness, a slowly encroaching wash of oscillating beats and a low fidelity fuzz that attempts to erode the purity and literal presence of the sunlight itself. Of course, this never truly happens, as the Moon only ever partially occludes the Sun but it is a shortlived event and once it’s over things simply return to their previous state having ridden through the threat of night in the day, of impending darkness and sadness.

Things start to get a little complicated as we approach the end; the mysteriously titled “Heather Spa” briefly flashes distant and almost indistinguishable sounds at us; at times like some bleary, smeared laughter, others like screams and shouts of a regrettable past made all the more poignant (and probable) by the surprisingly dominant violins. It’s a long piece, as many of them are on this record, and there is still something nagging at me that it’s a little overblown and unnecessarily exorbitant in length but the eerie peacefulness and carefully smothering audio keep us away from the fear and revolt lurking darkly below, and it’s captivating. Finally closer “Dangerous Days” serenades us out on antithetic beacons of shining drone that betray their namesake, once more following that trend of deception and carefully compensating or even completely covering up the true problems and misery.

What’s so unusual in regards to 36’s work is the extreme cohesion and truly thematic nature of Shadow Play; that’s not to say that Hypersona didnt have that child-like naivety or Hollow that dark homesickness, it’s just that they were a bit looser compositionally, with more experimentality and variability in the sounds presented. Shadow Play takes that feeling of uselessness and disconnection from reality and repurposes it, drowns it out and turns it around, and it’s charted perfectly throughout the record’s duration. Don’t be a shadow, letting your life get ruled and manipulated, become the manipulator and take it back, that’s the message here, and a clear one at that. Stunning.

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