Originally published in Popdose on Oct. 23, 2014
When you listen to A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s new record, titled Atomos, it’s difficult not to think about the musicality and inherent narratives of human breathing.
True, there is something airy and organic, intensely human even, to the ambient textures and swelling tides on the Kranky release, the duo’s second full-length offering. But it’s something more substantive and illustrative than that. The music, which echoes Arvo Part, is informed by the art of drones and it’s no surprise AWVFTS is half comprised of Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie. But the new record is a voyeur of intense subtlety as well as scale, and the soundscapes Wiltzie and post-classical pianist/composer Dustin O’Halloran weave are so fragile, so low in the mix, that it’s difficult not to listen closely to the record without also listening as you inhale and exhale. It makes the music, however intentional, border on the magical.
Atomos is a score of sorts to accompany new work of the same name by Random Dance Company, whose founder — Wayne McGregor, choreographer behind Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” and Atoms For Peace’s “Ingenue,” it should be noted – used AWVFTS’ first record as warm-up music for his troupe. (O’Halloran and Wiltzie, in addition, previously worked together on O’Halloran’s third solo outing, Lumiere.) The new medium seems appropriate, as the group’s slant on avant-indie chamber music, if you want to label it that for compartmentalization’s sake, is intensely textured but also pulls its colors from an almost invisible motion. In other words: you could imagine people using this as a soundtrack to slink in dark corners.
The disc’s 11 tracks, each numbered a successive “Atomos,” thankfully contain many narratives but, since this is falling square in the instrumental domain, you’re left to flesh out your own characters and storylines. Like the best post-classical out there, though, you want have to try very hard to imagine where this music takes you. There’s ethereal pianos twinkling, electronic washes setting pace, and strings that fluctuate between the quiet drama of weeping and the cold necessity of a heartbeat. It’s pretty riveting and immersive stuff. If you’re not turned into a blubbering, tear-jerked fool at the somber close of “Atomos V,” or during the moment the piano boldly reintroduces itself into the equation over skittering electronics three minutes into “Atomos VI,” or the pacing, faux-dramatic piano set three-quarters of the way through “Atomos XI,” you should get your hearing checked. (For an extra sock to the gut, check out the group’s live performance on Boiler Room: just incredible.)
Though there are peaks and valleys throughout the hour that Atomos runs – halfway through “Atomos VII,” you begin to hear more of the influence of Philip Glass, for example, and “Atomos XI” begins with flickered and obscured hints at requia – this lacks the overpowering crescendos of post-rockers like Godspeed You Black Emperor! and the indie-rock-informed peaks and valleys of genre-mates like Rachel’s. It is quiet music, made even more hauntingly quiet by its careful initiation. And while your computer software likely will label it electronica – for comparisons, look to Pan-American – there’s a lot more to this than that. Atomos, more than a dance company’s wordless narrative, is crafted for anyone who’s ever flirted with the dusky space between wakefulness and sleep – who hasn’t, really?! – and anyone who’s ever paused to catch their breath during a tender musical moment. With Atomos, you’ll be weaving the experience right into the song.