Shade Themes from Kairos
In the middle of Shade Themes from Kairos is a pop song, or at least as close to a pop song as Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley and Randall Dunn are ever likely to write. The first couple of minutes of ‘Sometimes’ plod along with the expect suspended doom and sonorous plucks of guitar, but then a female vocal refrain enters. The interplay between the voice and the instruments, which begin to answer it, becomes an experimental ballad. The scattered shudders of drums remaining inexorably slow; the ambient reverberations, though toned down from what might be expected of the trio, are still pretty cavernous, even if the cavern sounds a little way off rather than engulfing you; it’s still eight minutes long, though as ever the time passes by without a hint of boredom. Yet, with the adornment of an acoustic guitar pattern and the simple, confident beauty of the singing, it’s not impossible to imagine the song (with a few adjustments) languishing at the end of a particularly adventurousness pop album, or being sung in a smoky jazz fusion club.
This doesn’t mean that Ambarchi, O’Malley and Dunn have taken a complete left turn with Shade Themes – certainly no more than they do on a regular basis as three of the most exciting, innovative musicians working in their field (if they even have a field, that is). Rather, it continues their various explorations in the rough environs of their typical long, commanding drone music, terrifying in the can’t-tear-your-eyes-off-it way. ‘Sometimes’ is followed by a twenty-minute, guitar-based drone of pure, primordial domination, as if the artists are reminding you exactly who they are and how good they are at what they do, after a frivolous jaunt into the unexpected. ‘Ebony Pagoda’ is a masterclass of restraint and power. Over the years O’Malley and Dunn, in their Sunn O))) work, have perfected the art of thundering a guitar chord, or a couple of notes, then playing in and sculpting its resonances for as long as possible, leaving the listener crawling with anticipation, begging for the next crash, and releasing it only when they’ve begun to give up hope that it will ever arrive. ‘Ebony Pagoda’ employs that to full effect, and mines the intervening spaces for every scrap of texture, every shimmer and rumble, with the trio adding a few themselves for good measure. It’s perhaps not quite as good as ‘Giant’, a similar piece from the Ensemble Pearl album last year that O’Malley made with members of Boris and Bill Herzog, but then again that was the best drone of 2013.
The first three tracks on Shade Themes, which arguably make up the meat of the album, mine slightly different territory again. It starts off firmly in the realm of the weird, with juddering synth and a disjointed choir, but then veers into a hypnotic drum riff and spools of open, spaghetti western soundtrack guitar – think recent Earth but more psychedelic. The album was originally conceived as the musical component of an experimental film by Alexis Destoop in which time is mined like a mineral. But apart from occasional nods to the likes of Ennio Morricone, the music here doesn’t sound much like any conventional soundtrack. This must be partly because it wasn’t written in the same way, since it was penned before and during the film’s production, so that it became an integral part of the finished product. Mostly though, it’s just that the sound is nothing like what you might expect from a movie accompaniment. It’s far more intrusive and insistent – the pummelling end of ‘Temporal, Eponymous’, for example, is so loud, the guitars so mangled and the production so in-your-face, cymbals crashing from speaker to speaker, that it’s difficult to imagine really being able to concentrate on anything visual (although that’s a nice reversal of the usual soundtrack status quo).
On a more basic level, it’s rare for drums to be so prominent in something originally intended as an accompaniment – albeit, Shade Themes is in the end very much its own beast. For much of the album Ambarchi’s stick work is dominant, and the riff that is introduced in ‘That Space Between’ recurs throughout the first half hour as the most obvious theme. The drumming is the easiest thing to latch on to and Ambarchi’s playing is assured and dynamic. Even if its repetitiveness makes it as much a drone as the guitar and synth parts, it’s an incessant and commanding drone (much like the percussionless ‘Ebony Pagoda’) that beats you into a rapt, entranced attention. The climax of ‘Circumstances of Faith’ marks the pinnacle of this. A crash cymbal-heavy beat that sits somewhere between the crunch of sludge and the ferocity of black metal crescendos at an almost imperceptible gradient, surrounded by swirling, clattering table and increasingly impenetrable squalls of guitar so that you barely notice when the volume reaches deafening levels. The trio are more adept at this kind of sustained, exquisitely detailed attack than maybe anyone else making music today.
After this, it’s probably no surprise that the next half hour is needed to calm down a bit – ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Ebony Pagoda’ are not much less intense, but they are less aggressive. And if that does make Shade Themes from Kairos an album of two halves, that’s not to say that the two don’t go together. The wide open, cavernous production and that suspensive, long-form composition link the two together (and both with the trios other work) adequately enough. Nor is it to say that this latest chapter in the ongoing experiments of Ambarchi, O’Malley and Dunn isn’t well worth your time.