Lawrence English – Wilderness of Mirrors (Room40, 2014)

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I often find it difficult to tackle albums that are inspired or influenced by poems. Largely because I’m fairly poorly read in the poetry department but also because I feel almost like it locks you into a particular interpretation and/or sets you up for a particular expectation even before you’ve started listening. That being said, Lawrence English’s latest full length Wilderness of Mirrors, based on the T.S Eliot poem of  elderly”Gerontion”, is carefully crafted to sound every bit as aged, confused, even embittered, as the writings of its inspiration whilst still remaining away enough from its confines to be an open and expansive release.

English is tired and confused by technology, which is almost ironic since much of the album is ensconced in thick and deep layers of processing that smear the original instrumentation out into dark expanses of frayed noise and drone in near seamless movements. Opener “The Liquid Casket” arrives with heavy and frayed drones bearing down from every which way, muted in their dark subaqueous expression and smothering the senses. Its bleak machinations are assisted by the tinkling of some delicately arpeggiated device in the distant backfield, and before we know it the title track has arrived and is already halfway done. Seamlessly segued in, a luminous beacon cuts through the waning drones of the opener, a lighthouse of hope guiding our way through The Wilderness of Mirrors. This beacon also reappears much later on in the closer “Hapless Gatherer”, except the process appears to occur in reverse there as the deep, miasmic, Thomas Koner drones overtake the pulsing lights and crawl to a pained halt with obliterating shots of processed guitar, unable to fend even for itself.

Despite it being said that the LP was inspired sonically by the likes of MBV and early Swans, Koner, Hecker and even Saaad all seem to be the most sonically comparable artists in some of the pieces here. The enormity of “Another Body” reminds me of Saaad especially through its ethereal combination of delicate radiance and deep-set growling drone lines. It’s actually a lot more peaceful than you’d think, and one of the least chaotic tracks as it disconnects from the corporeal realm to exist as another persona through the internet. Twinned with “Wrapped in Skin” it makes for a potent pairing in the heart of the release, the latter dragging us back to the cold and unforgiving fugue of reality, more stripped back and depressive in its softly shifting reverb, turning to face the endless abyss of life.

The longest piece of the album, “Forgiving Noir”, clocks in at around 8 minutes and is perhaps, to me, the most aimless of all. Perhaps the best part of this album is that everything is accessible and bitesized, conveying everything that needs to be said in condensed verses that don’t drag out longer than necessary, but “Noir” just keeps going in relentless waves of dry and dusty, foreboding motions of bleak, frayed drone, slowly being buried under faster, oscillating electronica across its length. It sounds like something lifted straight out of Tim Hecker’s An Imaginary Country but also seems to lack any of the power or subconscious determination. Luckily, penultimate beauty “Graceless Hunter” proves to be a rather misleadingly titled followup as it weaves out glowing walls and fragmentary sparkles through the spun drone bass, thankful for the simplicities of modernity as it reflects on the historic difficulties of our ancestors.

“Gerotion”‘s influence on the record is of course undeniable, reaffirming English’s own thoughts on the nature of technological encroachment and the confusion of growing up in a world that now seems out of your control or understanding, but it seems like as troublesome as it is, he wouldn’t have it any other way, and even hints at a possible level of admiration for those early peoples who endured far harder existences than we do today as we bemoan our first world problems. I like this record a lot, probably more than I’ve made clear; definitely one to pick up perhaps later in the year so not to ruin your warm summer nights.

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Symbol – Online Architecture (Holodeck Records, 2014)

Sitting in front of the sea yesterday I received my annual reminder of the resilient, unchanging nature of the ocean. Every hour of every minute of every day for billions of years, the only thing that’s remained constant is the assured slapping of waves on the shore the world over, and one can take comfort in the knowledge that it seems unlikely that this will change anytime soon. But Christopher King’s debut album Online Architecture under his new Symbol alias couldn’t be further from this, filling it with anxious and lonely drones inspired by the empty ghost cities of China, ready to accept the rapidly swelling population, a sign of the accelerating change and ongoing impact of human life on the Earth.

The opener “Tracer” is, oddly enough, the most incongruous piece of the album and the start point of our journey. Not unlike some of the constructions that we’re used to Constellation Tatsu churning out it’s filled with warbling psychedelia; arpeggiated synth lines and miscellaneous flickering electronica cruise, jar and stutter their way through the mix, the distant and fading thrum and flow of traffic in the urban centres. It slips away suddenly and the last vestiges of the chaotic but somehow structured opener disappear to be engulfed by hollow and empty drones, wallowing in deep layers of reverb and cassette fuzz. There’s a sense of familiarity present; bowed under the obfuscating processing, the buildings rise out of the mist devoid of life.

This ghostly realm and its serenity may have initially caught us off guard but the gorgeous “Syn Cron” arrives in cathartic rushes of wailing, luminous currents of distended guitar instrumentation, every pulse cutting through the melancholic drones before they finally converge, with acceptance of these astonishing and bizarre entities being granted to us. It’s a resistant process though and always feels a little uncomfortable, a little off-kilter and unbalanced, anxious. It welcomes the appropriately titled “New China”, a crossover piece of its two predecessors with fragmental guitar noises scratching out their own grooves through the delicate and placid, but dystopic, drones below. It’s short too, a fleeting glimpse into the heart of the Chinese industrial vision.

Penultimate track “Clear Passage” just melts into view after “New China” and once more feeds off of the ethereal loneliness of “Shadow Harvesting” but now with just a meagre hint of promise and hopefulness following the previously crushing emptiness. That’s not to say that it doesn’t still possess a sense of unshakeable melancholy, because it does, still not quite able to shake off the depressing nature of these quiet concrete behemoths standing idle. And before we know it the closer is on top of us: “Lineage”. As the longest track of the album it’s afforded the certain luxury of being the most carefully and slowly built up of all the pieces; languid waves of some unnameable instrument eak out of the historic abyss and lap like waves in the echoic void slowly and deliberately. Muted harmonium effortlessly takes over as it goes on, billowy ebbs of lightweight drone that slowly drown out the timeless and previously unchanging course of nature with their own soft, sweetly innocent song.

There’s a quiet angst here that’s deeply uncomfortable with the notion of disrupting the natural order of things, with the purposeful disregard for nature in pursuit of supposed human foresight that has so far failed to metabolise, that we find in China’s unfilled, abandoned cities, eagerly awaiting the day they find themselves populated. But that is the sound of human development and encroachment onto the world, the sound of forced and unnatural change being slipped in under the guise of necessity for our continued survival and expansion. King’s discomfort is palpable and that’s what makes this record so hauntingly beautiful, especially given that everything is carved out of the beautiful but now aged technology of cassettes; King wants to make sure we know that this change is unsustainable and that we shouldn’t be so placid about its occurrence. Just an incredible record, definitely a contender for an upper spot for this year’s list.

36 – Dream Tempest (2014)

One of the overwhelming sensations found in 36’s work over the years has been, in his own words, a sense of “glowing melancholy”; myself, I would have described it as a sense of inseparable nostalgia. There’s always been a component in Dennis Huddleston’s music that seems filled with wist and regret, yearning for a return to simpler and younger times. His latest and 6th full length LP Dream Tempest doesn’t seem to divert too far away from this as it ensconces itself in childhood daydreams and tries to force out the disappointing reality of adulthood.

And so the title track opens the album on twinkling turnings of a delicate synthscape, faux violins rushing to fill the dark interstitial void with an ominous thrumming. Ominous it is, but tempestuous it is not, and almost disappointingly no track on the record breaks out into a calamitous tumult of sound that the namesake would suggest. That being said, the tempest itself manifests in more subtle forms, worming its way through the undercurrents; “Sun Riders”, the title piece of his previous EP (of which every track appears here) warbles into view with celestial but earthbound ambitions, floating on naive and rather submissive drones, the hopes and longings of a child fascinated by the dream of space. A little later “Tired” drifts in on smudged fragments of field recordings and Basinski-esque drone snippers, a downtrodden and bleary number reflecting from a hypnagogic place on those childhood hopes.

Sometimes we’re allowed to peek into the mind of that lost child though, and it’s far brighter and more refreshing than the melancholic and wistful sequences entertained in the retrospectives. The gorgeous “Airglow” lightens the atmosphere from the early trio of rather oppressive pieces with a short and lightweight interlude filled with thin synths, before toppling into the beauteous toybox tinklings and thick, cosy drone currents of “Play”. It’s a surprisingly meaty and focused track, lost in its own carefree and irresponsible world, oblivious in its naive tunnel vision. Perhaps the last bastion of this sound appears in the almost playful, but rather uninnocent, empowered toybox sequences of “Hyperbox”, unfolding rapidly as multiple layers of delicate but quick instrumentation, tactical windings and soft vocal coos shimmering out of the urgent mix.

The latter half of the album chases this eager little number and begins to settle back down into what I would call more familiar territory as things collapse into the softly shifting drone territory of the later pieces. “Perfect Numbers” signals our throwback piece for this album, employing the classic recitation of random numbers over eager, arpeggiated synth riffs before migrating into the downtrodden movements of “Redshift” as we watch our old dreams accelerate away from us in the measured, smeared waves of growling drone. Not forgotten though, as “Always” is keen to remind us in its expansive and cathartic fugues of dry, dense, grinding drone and regretful opening moments of trumpetal verses, altogether submissive and acceptant of its fate but still holding on to that wonder of what might have been, forever.

Fortunately Dream Tempest seems to display a return to more fully realised and conceptually clear form for 36 after the rather flimsy themes of Shadow Play, but there is still something holding me back a little. Much like its predecessor it feels oftentimes more like a strong suite or collection of singles rather than a unified whole; it’s not until the latter half until I feel like I can appreciate the cohesion as the tracks settle into their idiosyncrasies, whilst the first half seems to flounder a little in indecision and flip-flop between sonic styles before converging into a more allied entity. Still, it’s an enjoyable and immersive listen with its fair share of spellbinding, emotionally tugging moments.

You can stream the album for free as well as buy it for a modest sum at the Bandcamp page.