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.

Saåad – Deep/Float (Hands In The Dark, 2014)

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Where to even begin; French duo Saåad have been a big part of my music consumption for the last couple of years, cranking out thick, heady and emotionally charged noisy drone ambient music tinged with field recordings. Over the years they’ve slowly been refining this cathartic sound, filled with grumbling bass drones and wailing vocals, to the point where they’re now sufficiently pleased with their work to finally release their first full length record on vinyl in Deep/Float.

And so we’re back in business once more with opener “Valley Of Quartz”, sweeping away the preceding silence with a deep drone thrum, a blaring but restrained wall of sound that not only does away with the darkness but feels like the darkness itself, mingling with soft pulses of noise and crushed synth fiddlings in the distant backfield. We’re very much stuck at the bottom of this chasm, these two sheer columns of rock rising darkly at our sides, a sliver of delicate light floating in through the slim crack at the surface giving us just the faintest amount of hope. It sustains this for some time, seemingly endless in its construction, but it does have a limit and that impenetrable drone bows out to make way seamlessly for “Alone In The Light”. Its namesake is only illusory, however, as the track still retains much of the crushing darkness of the opener in its growing drone fugue, slowly and calmly obliterating the sparse opening textures of metallic tinkling. But there is a metamorphosis in the sound, deceptively slow as it is, that transforms this menacing dull roar into something altogether more placid, a slight softening and edge rounding that adds a certain extra-dimension of emotional complexity to it.

“Giant Mouth” opens to echoic breaths and the scrabble of loose stones tumbling, the sharp and crisp juxtaposed against the ethereal as we’re silhouetted, poised at the mouth of this cavern. This is our escape, our breakthrough moment where we can start to leave behind those darker and oppressive moments behind us and crawl out into the sunlight once more, and as we catch those precious first few rays the track warms up exponentially, a crescendo of multiplying, euphoric synth drones finally breaking free of their restraints. There’s still a distant roar, like an eternal scream of happiness propagating through the background fabric of the track, reverbing and smushed and internalised, hidden away. But this elation is short lived as we’re reminded of our shortcomings and self-loathing once again in the truly stunning “I Will Always Disappoint You”, a track I scarcely know how to describe. It rises like a melancholic wave of sound, the ruinous drone of the opener returning  to centre stage  to be accompanied by aggressive and fragmentary guitar, the whole thing reverbed and empty, alone in a dark bubble of thought that just becomes increasingly sparse and more desperate, the core of the problem slowly coming into view. A piercing note cuts through the mix to signal the onset of the sonic abandonment and we’re left with nothing more than an echoic silence, filled with menacing sounds of unknown origin, thunderous in the silence but not unlike the much needed reorganisation of furniture, settings things right.

Pre-release single “New Helicon” is waiting on the other side of the chaos and misery, a new start waiting to begin. It’s light to begin with, but with a definite coolness and anxiety to the shimmering, oscillating tones that warble endlessly, but they get swept up in the surge of fresh guitar drone that carries the heart of the track along. a lush and curious sound that’s every bit as gentle as it is big and bold. There’s something totally indescribable about the quality of this track, its attitude and emotional presence, it’s hard to pin down. It’s like the early precursory flames of a larger fire, that of the all-to-soon closer “After Love”. I’m over it, Saåad seem to say with this piece, as we open the thick and dusty curtains to the world again after our period of reflection. Sunlight streams in on musty waves of luxurious and relieved guitar drone and faint, thankful voices in what is perhaps the best album closer of the year thus far, a gentle giant of a track that simply paralyses you in its gorgeous catharsis and sumptuously complex layers, now fully recharged and ready to open the door back to reality as the track spins out in an emptying, rising silence.

I realise I possibly say this about every release of theirs but Saåad really have pulled something out of the bag with this one. There’s a clear starkness, loneliness and alienation to the record, the sound of a man/woman fighting their way out of a depressive fugue and making their way back to normality, but it’s not harsh or forced, it’s dangerously relatable and utterly consuming in its simple struggle. The drones and the listener fuse into one body in a state of transcendental empathy, looking out with their own eyes but in with another. It’s a wholly original and organic album that will stir even the most heartless music listener. A must listen.

Sádon – Fire/Water (2014, 2xEP)

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Another new release (or pair of releases) fresh off the shelves of the BLWBCK label, this time by the St. Petersburg duo of Sádon, which not only is suspiciously close to label mates Saåad in terms of name but also within the music itself.

The big reveal comes in with the crushing opener of the first EP Fire, with “Desolation”. Monumental guitar drones throb and growl, although that is by far the biggest understatement you could make in describing them, since they come thick and fast as a wall of oscillating, punishing, cathartic noise, accompanied below by slow chords smeared out into crystalline drones that fray at their edges, like tattered flags left out in the elements too long. It’s stark and mean and foreboding, and sounds so much like Saåad it’s disconcerting, but it’s intoxicating nonetheless. Followup “Condor” turns us away slightly to prevent us thinking they’re perhaps out to duplicate a certain sound with a rather harsh melody of lo-fi acoustic guitar and mysterious, moaned vocals distorted in a similar fashion. There’s a certain element of the original character of both elements retained, something vaguely menacing and disconcerting, pushed under a rug of low fidelity processing to wrap it in a certain level of mystery, added to especially in the closing moments of rather playful solo guitar.

The biggest track of the Fire EP “Nameless Soul” follows in “Desolation”‘s footsteps but instead of shoehorning a mountain of fearful, overwhelming loneliness and oppressive catharsis into 4 minutes it carves out a luxurious vista of pained guitar drone, washes of subtle chord changes slowly and almost imperceptibly altering the chaotic and near destroyed fabric of the barely-there melodies. All the while faint and downtrodden vocals bleed out of some void buried beneath the sea of sound, the rolling hills of obliterating guitar. It’s all rather pained and entrancing, and the flip-flopping continues in closer “Dernier Refuge” or “The Last Refuge” as I understand it, which slows the pace to a crawl once again with big, heart-wrenching chords filling up the vast, echoic vacuum that seems to just eat it all up, lightly reverbed the warbling strums on their way to oblivion in this heavy final track.

Except it isn’t, for we actually have another 30 minutes of content ahead of us in the next EP, Water. Opener for this release, the aptly titled “Water Starter”, is rather at odds to much of the material we’ve heard thus far, although it’s rather close stylistically to the previous vocally lead track “Condor”. The lyrics are just a touch clearer and cleaner:

“Life is gonna, going to be

If you give an answer to me”

is repeated heavily during the first half, accompanied by delicate snaps and silky pulses of unusually restrained drone lapping gently on the shores on the piece. A roiling current of noise is barely held back beneath it all, however, and as the track progresses and the piano becomes increasingly clearer the mood becomes darker and more anxious, the roar just submerged under the surface being placated by the gentle lullabies of piano solo, soothing it into submission. It shifts gear into “Born In The Barrel”, which seems to me like it wants to adopt something closer to a Post-Rock style in its slowed crawl of wailing drone and slowly rising, proactive guitar with unintelligible vocals. All of the steam set up in Fire seems to have been quenched and quelled here as we finally hit Sádon at their most introspective.

But even as I say this the even more quiescent “Sleep” rolls into view, practically stripped bare of all its complexity and scale, dialled down to distal and heavily reverbed shushes and rich flushes of languid guitar occasionally breaking through the veil. The track itself is hardly soporific, lending itself less to the act of encouraging sleep and more duplicating its nature, with its detailed emptiness allowing slowed, filtered fragments of outside sensory data to glide into the safe world within as beautiful, idealised worlds glide by while we slumber. Eventually its 12 minute span draws to a quiet close and we’re left with the real final track, “Quit Heaven”. It lives up to its namesake as it tremulously builds layers of delicate, melancholic drone up, layers and currents that beautifully evoke the name of the EP, shifting gracefully as they melt away into one another in a contemplative 4 minutes of careful music. The final fadeout is a little jerky and disappointing, however, but it’s barely noticeable.

On the whole, a rather interesting and well juxtaposed set of EPs, titled perfectly. Fire is perhaps a little inconsistent and less well conceived that Water, which is far more graceful and beauteous and segues well. Fire is more disharmonious and doesn’t seem to have a desire to be pinned down and relies more on the crushing processing to make up for it, which is a little sad. That being said, both are well crafted and well executed and thought provoking.