There is an incalculable amount of illusion in any ideal of beauty. - Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair (1990), 119.
Label: Kranky Records (catalogue no. 157) / Running time: 44m 34s / Recorded: 2011, in Belgium, Italy and Germany.
The upshot: a minimalist, symphonic fugue state (both artist and album, which are one and the same). Far from sulking, this work approaches incandescence at points. Musical proof where nothing is rushed, no pretense made to aggression, and no detours made to signal half-hearts, then despair finds no ground. Easily one of the most significant ambient works of the past decade.
What does it sound like? This is instrumental slow-build, post-rock chamber music that veers to the melancholy, tragic, forlorn. It revolves around deliberately oblique piano and strings that edge around the narcoleptic, flattened, disassociated. Imagine Godspeed at their most quiet, barely conscious moment. Or the most tangential, most discursive solos from an Arvo Part composition. Or all the interstitial, accidental bits of experimentation Rachel's might have left on the cutting room floor over the years. My nine-year old calls this 'low music', which is really not a bad label; certainly the project title is apt enough (albeit perhaps a minor setback for the subtle).
Assuming I like, what else might I try? Track seven has some very Music for Airports moments, just as there are some plain as day parallels with Harold Budd's work (in particular The White Arcades). One might also detect some Ivo Watts-Russell in some of the post-production which dredges up some This Mortal Coil comparisons. If the idea of adding low-key lyrics to this sort of output is not off-putting, The Dead Texan. Earlier SOTL would also be an obvious recommendation, particularly their last effort. Track six also very much recalls bits of Peter Gabriel's soundtrack Passion. On the other hand, should you find the piano work here the best part, Dustin O'Halloran has numerous solo records in the same minimalist vein. Finally, in 2014, the band also released a very stirring (if circular) classical work for strings entitled Atomos (No. 190).
Track 1: "We played some open chords and rejoiced, for the Earth had circled the sun yet another year" - violins, viola, cello open up like a sombre velvet curtain to O'Halloran's beckoning piano. Like walking into an dusty, empty theatre for a play you know nothing about and being handed a program typed in Cyrillic script. But you sit anyway, as the orchestra warms up, only to realize the incidental music is the whole show, there will be no spotlight, no soliloquy, no star. Just you, in a moth-eaten chair, listening.
Track 2: "Requiem for the Static King, part one" - so you settle in, as strings return. Examine the dim opera house, the chandelier enwrapped in cobwebs, the baroque and lace of the boxseats. Very 4AD this track, very Filigree and Shadow.
Track 3: "Requiem for the Static King, part two" - and now the tone of the show really begins to resonate, with this track the sonics develop a pulse, heartbeat, grounding of their own. The harp and horn in tandem (about 2:30) with piano build up a kind of longing, lolling end to this piece that's graceful and gentle (the very opposite of the grim the outfit and album title might imply).
Track 4: "Minuet for a cheap piano, No.2" - back to the strained 'night at the opera' analogy, this piece represents a kind of evocative, ominous intermission in the record's arc. There are sounds in the wings, fluttering and swinging in the gloom overhead, that weren't evident before. The piano comes in as from under the trapdoor (or check the way that cello comes in around 2:00). As a still mystified spectator, here you might get the first hints of darker, more threatening tones.
Track 5: "Steep hills of vicodin tears" - Act two really begins with this song, like a sustained, worried chorus, a progression towards doubt, so that by around 4:30 you might notice the dim lights subsiding further, the already chill air getting colder. And then it's like the curtains you now assumed would never open slowly melt aside, and the stage is set in the long arcs and curves and shadows of dusk.
Track 6: "A Symphony Pathetique" - which delivers us to the climax of the album. Much of Wiltzie's work, if one reads as rendering the detached, discordant anti-state of despair, manages to transcend that reality in works like this. O'Halloran's soft pedal piano, the atmospherics and delay (around 4:40), the ascending chords deliver an uplifting (if fleeting) moment of transcendence and clarity. Before settling back into a more managed, medicated reality.
Track 7: "All farewells are sudden" - the sparrows and keyboards and polyphonic vocals all come very squarely together here for a kind of longing, extended sigh, a lingering sonic look behind. By 3:30, it's magical, even transporting. Which is one has to believe precisely the sort of denouement this group would have sought after as they wound down.