A Winged Victory for the Sullen - Atomos
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When the 'A Winged Victory for the Sullen' project was announced in 2011 it seemed safe to assume it would be a fairly pedestrian affair. Dustin O'Halloran, best known for his piano pieces and film scores, and Adam Wiltzie, Stars of the Lid and The Dead Texan alumnus, were no strangers to sprawling understated beauty. While each employing different compositional tools, the two always felt like musical kindred spirits.
It was no surprises, then, when their debut album arrived as a beautiful, sprawling, understated piece of modern classical composition. The delayed guitar and string passages that seem to mimic breathing or the tides of the ocean, that Wiltzie is so known for, were present. O'Halloran's delicate piano melodies were accounted for. It was a delicious collaborative piece, and a staple for spring mornings and summer afternoons listening thereafter. While it was an album I return to regularly and would highly recommend, it didn't rock any metaphorical boats and sounded well within the comfort zones of both artists.
Atomos is an entirely different animal. Composed as the score to the highly acclaimed dance piece of the same name by Wayne McGregor, it is important to consider this as a standalone production. Having not witnessed the performance aspect of the project personally, as I presume most approaching this album did not, the score is presented here as a sophomore effort proper from the duo.
The first 90 seconds of sound here establish a vastly different mood to that of old. An organ, somewhat reminiscent of Tim Hecker's gorgeously menacing 'Ravedeath 1972', introduces a refrain often returned to. Ebb-and-flow strings begin at a pace that summons an almost discomforting intensity that wastes no time reaching fever-pitch little more than five minutes in. Clearly, this is music for movement. Though more than ten minutes in length, this is easily the most immediate composition heard from the pair to date. And, thankfully, it's gorgeous.
The second track introduces another first for the team: solo performances. Disregarding O'Halloran's solo piano, it's interesting to hear single instruments emerge from the wash of strings and take centre stage. It's here that the project takes on a brand new life of its own. No longer simply a project for ambient pieces to soundtrack the comings and goings of the day, Wiltzie and O'Halloran are here accomplished composers in their own right - and they're bloody good at it. It's truly wonderful to bear witness a transformation like this; two musicians with vast separate compositional histories coming together to produce something that transcends their previous works and covers new ground.
Production takes on an increasingly prominent role in these pieces, with sounds dampened and decayed Basinski-esque. Skittering vocal samples jump in and out occasionally, like weak radio signals or crossed telephone wires. Though a technique very much tried and tested in this avenue of music, AWVFTS's vital strings and immersive structures ensure it feels essential and uniquely theirs.
While their music prior to Atomos was emotionally very much open to interpretation, moods are certainly implied to a greater extent here. Moments of great intensity are recurrent, as are sections that emote fairly unquestionably. This is likely due to the primarily performance-based nature of the compositions. Because of this, the medium of consumption is perhaps better suited to headphones on a train journey or other times of solitary listening. This is in no way a criticism; everything has an application, and this is what works best for Atomos. That, or experienced at one of their upcoming live dates Europe and Stateside.
In conclusion, Atomos is a hugely accomplished piece of music from two artists who have addressed their formidable back catalogues and crafted something truly unique. Its tracks are an emotional journey of high innovation, peppered with thoroughly interesting musical turns and leitmotifs that work wonderfully. On top of their game and in a league of their own, we can only hope A Winged Victory for the Sullen is a project that continues to surprise and delight for years to come.
Available here: http://www.erasedtapes.com/store/index/ERATP061
Review by Jack Cooper