Wednesday, March 1, 2017

album review: 'reassemblage' by visible cloaks

This'll likely be one of the stranger reviews I've done in some time.

Granted, I could say that about the majority of electronic music I cover, especially the more experimental and 'quirky' it gets, but Visible Cloaks sits in a peculiar space all on its own, to the point where I'm not quite sure how to properly describe it. The project of composers Spencer Dolan and Ryan Carlile, the sound sits in an odd plucky brand of warbling ambience that sparks and careens off of all sorts of bells and whistles that played fast and loose with any idea of consistent key or tempo or groove. That's certainly what I felt about their self-titled debut project, which as expected had a certain homegrown Bandcamp quality in its meandering experimentation but also brought a level of quality and poise in the compositions that did draw my interest. And when their sophomore project began picking up considerable critical acclaim... well, suffice to say my interest was piqued. So what did we find with Reassemblage?

Well folks, this is the sort of project where my conventional structure of reviews somewhat fails me - and not just because there's no real lyrics to discuss. No, what Reassemblage reminds me much more of is an extended mood piece, aiming to cultivate a very specific tone and atmosphere more than anything else, more texture than defining melody. And I'm not going to say I outright dislike the tones they're looking to create, but to me it very much feels like I'm watching a particularly obscure and slow-paced anime with no subtitles - besides the prominent Asian influences in what melodic song structures we do get and a few snippets of Japanese, this is very much reminiscent of the pseudo-alien fusion of organic fragments with gentle fizzing, plainly synthetic tones, where flesh and organic matter blends with glass, plastic, and razor thin fragments of steel yet without losing any of its pliability and jittery organic life.

But even that doesn't quite feel like an adequate description, nor provide any actual insight to whether I liked it or not, so let's start with the production and instrumentation. And here's the thing: for the blend of burbling, electronic fragments that comprise the majority of the tones on this record, the last word that you'd think would be appropriate is 'lush' or full - you'd be well-within your rights to think such skittering fragments would stand alone in the mix or the tones would be too tinny to mix all that well. But maybe it's the commitment to analogue recording of these synth tones or the skill in blending the pieces, but there is a certain wild tranquility that comes with these tones that feels incredibly natural. Maybe the balance of deeper fuller tones in the back for the melodic fragments to touch against but not sink within, maybe it's the command of mix depth that allow all the pieces to play across the space, maybe it's how despite that depth the mix never quite stops feeling tactile and intimate in the way the misty chill of an overgrown foreign jungle might be, but it really does create a pretty impressive soundscape in which these tones flow and skitter and shift. The duo describe the approach to creating this sound as taking the synthetic sampled blends of obscure world instruments and through gentle harmonic layering reassembling a tonal harmony that might have been lost, reassembling them all into a distinct piece.

And yet it's a question of what that distinct piece as a whole actually aims to do with these pieces that I find frustrating. And I know exactly what that sounds like as someone who just doesn't get this sort of naturalistic tranquility and that I just need to relax and soak it in, but for as good of a job as this record does in creating the atmosphere, there's a part of me that wishes it was better paced or had more flow. For as much as the opening track 'Screen' with its glittering cascades of fizzy fragments that open up into a bigger, deeper ethereal synth backdrop that will fill up many of the following songs, that penetration of screens doesn't seem to resolve itself into consistent crescendos or even a sense of good transitions. What instead we seem to get are moments where the textures overlap and touch but often without a sense of build or flow - it's more naturalistic, sure, but it doesn't exactly lend to progression, rather more moments that sit next to each other in the negative space or ethereal backdrop, isolated moments that might abruptly clash with the next melodic fragment. And that's not just between songs, where the flow barely exists at all - tracks like 'Terrazzo' with the sharp woodwind transitions, the quivering spikes and rattles of 'Bloodstream' with the abrupt deeper shift midway through, the plucky back half of 'Mimesis' that doesn't really fit, or the shift to xylophone tones on 'Place' against the tinny hornlike fragments and admittedly pretty mournful strings. And hell, sometimes there are cases I'm just not all that fond of some of the tones that are used, like the xylophone progression that blurs into muted warbles of synth against the ethereal shifts of 'Mask', or the stiffened needles of synth we get on 'Mimesis' trying to play off the piano sitting awkwardly out of place midway back, at least until it builds a bit more of a groove with rounded glossy edges, or the low yodeling chiptune gurgles from Matt Carlson that fill up 'Neume'. At least a piece like 'Skyscraper' feels sharply defined within the fizzy synth, but that song can't even last forty seconds, it's barely an interlude. I will say there are a few isolated pieces I like: the fizzy cascades of 'Wintergreen' with the sandy glassy flutters was pretty in the same way a snow-covered, wind-touched forest is, and the gradual assembly of choppy strings against the female backing vocals on 'Circle' at least felt like there was a progressive growth there. 

But overall... look, this was not a Patreon request, I specifically put this on my schedule and voted it up, I wanted to cover this record in depth. And yet despite all of this I feel a little mixed on it. I wouldn't place it among the electronic projects I love, but it's so defiantly unique and weird in its tonal blend and balance that it almost reminds me of walking through a museum of sounds, where each display is partially filled with artifacts and yet is painstakingly rebuilt to capture the scene. But wandering through this museum means pace and progression is fragmented - more a feature than a flaw, but it also doesn't click with me as well as I'd like. So in other words, we have another project I think I appreciate more than I outright love, but I will say there are some gorgeous moments of composition that did suck me in, enough to knock this to an extremely light 7/10. If you're a fan of the weirder side of electronic music, definitely check this out, but otherwise... well, if you want to hear something that's unlike anything you'll probably hear this year, it's worth the attention.

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