An attempt to reconstruct a previous post that disappeared…
While appearing on albums for reputable labels such as Mute, Kranky, and Bedroom Community, today’s electronic-ambient artists are also afforded a healthy sideline in commissions for dance, theater, art installation, and film. One key benefactor is the choreographer Wayne McGregor, who treats his internationally acclaimed spectacles like he’s booking Moogfest, enlisting composers such as Max Richter, Ben Frost, and Jon Hopkins.
But those lines seem especially blurred in the case of A Winged Victory for the Sullen, whose second album, Atomos, was written for McGregor. Two of the group’s four LPs are scores, not even counting two other compositions for film soundtracks. Pianist Dustin O’Halloran’s most famous song is the Transparent theme, while Adam Wiltzie—whose ambient group Stars of the Lid launched countless hum-alikes—was tapped to score the big Whitney Houston doc for reasons even he doesn’t understand.
The only noticeable difference between the duo’s albums and commissions is the latitude that they allow themselves on the latter. That’s certainly the case on Invisible Cities, the score for a sprawling dance theater production based on Italo Calvino’s postmodern novel. Ambient musicians do have a habit of imputing weirdly specific concepts to interchangeable drones. But in this happy case, the applied content could hardly be more harmonious.
In Calvino’s 1972 novel, the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo describes imaginary cities to his contemporary, Kublai Khan, the Mongolian emperor later immortalized by a laudanum-dazed English poet. Any AWVFTS album would resonate with the beautifully wrought shape of Calvino’s prose, its sentimental, sorrowful grandeur, and the dreamlike flow of glittering details. Chip away all that agate and chalcedony, and Marco Polo is not describing cities, but how memory structures them, and what longings attached to them—two themes AWVFTS know well.
On Invisible Cities, their established neoclassical-ambient template is perfectly intact, with wide, spreading basses on the bottom, distorted melodies sharply etching the high end, and soft harmonies shifting in the abyssal middle. The tempo is solemn, the pacing regal, the mood perpetually expectant. The hopeful uncertainty of O’Halloran’s piano lends human scale to towers of holy drones and fuming strings. But there are more varieties of motion and force here than their imperious stasis usually allows.
Several songs dance on rapid pizzicato strings or driving violin ostinatos, while others incorporate tight, breathless arias. Others explode the elegant façade with exhilaration. “There Is One of Which You Never Speak” builds to a shorting mess of circuitry, almost shocking from a group that usually abhors any stereo chaos. The big finish, “Total Perspective Vortex,” goes even harder. The usual symphonic ice-melt erupts in volcanic distortion, which is then chopped into the strafing patterns that pervade the record, peaking in a metal scream.
Naturally, the most explicit Calvino references are in the song titles, though it’s nice to think of the subtle elephant-trumpet timbre of “The Dead Outnumber the Living” as an homage to the pachyderm in the book’s prologue. Wiltzie and O’Halloran knew what they were about when they snagged the line “desires are already memories” for a title, though somehow they overlooked “a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening,” an excellent précis of their whole vibe.
Still, one more parallel might be suggested. Calvino deployed heightened emotion with schematic rigor—most of the book’s Wikipedia page is concerned with its intricate internal structure. (He was a member of Oulipo, some French authors who started trying to write literature with math in the 1960s.) In a different way, AWVFTS does the same thing.
This is a group, after all, whose prior album was a sort of musical treatise on the perfect fifth. Their music conveys a sense of drama, high stakes, even godlike perspective, yet it does so in such a seamless, unerring way that it feels abstract, tooled for proscenium halls. A baseline of reliability can double as a cap on transcendent potential, and it’s those cap-rattling moments that make what’s otherwise simply another fine album from this duo worthwhile.