“Atomos”, the second studio album from A Winged Victory for the Sullen, is widely anticipated (understatement of the year). There’s no doubting it would’ve been anything else. After three years, “Atomos”” sees Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran return — something we’ve all been waiting for ever since their self-titled debut dropped in 2011. They are at the top of the ambient/modern classical game once again. So, does their sophomore disappoint? No way José!
The opening seconds let you know exactly where you are, and what you’ve been missing. There isn’t really a sense of déjà vu, but the sound, both the instrumentation and its musical content, is instantly familiar. The lucid hiss that opens “Atomos” could just as easily be a deep inhalation, the cool intake of oxygen that prepares you for something you can’t really prepare for. Anchored drones and swaying strings gradually enter one at a time, melodic arpeggios rising (inhaling) and then falling (exhaling). With wings they glide through the music. It’s a wide open, wide-eyed place, but we, as listeners, are not just visitors. We are participators. The music on “Atomos” washes away the grime and the pain at once, springing forth from a safe haven that can only be reached and touched through music. Their music has a colossal interior, the walls and ceilings constructed out of healthy orchestral strings that pose like statues in a church of pale melancholy.
The sound has expanded, but they retain every drop of their debut’s atmospheric chamber music, the kind that brought about their original success. But “Atomos” had a very different beginning. Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, approached Adam and Dustin with a view to writing a score for his new production after he’d heard their debut (McGregor also used the music during practice sessions with his group of dancers). With complete artistic freedom, they set about writing and recording new music. It took just four months to compose the latest chapter.
The inclusion of electronic textures may come as a surprise, but it’s a brave step forward. Electronics can often break up, dissolve and ultimately litter the music with its gritty sandpaper, cold, metallic debris lying all over the stave like a weather balloon’s crash site, but “Atomos” is safe from this specific threat. Their shapes mirror Coca-Cola bottles with their glassy curves, and the warm drones emit healthy thermals that lubricate an already lovely sound with slivers of steam. When they come together, they provide as much warmth as a winter jacket. Additionally, harps and modular synthesisers make their way into the music, but they play a secondary role to the main act. Don’t worry — there’s just as much space as before. The fragile pieces are silky spider-webs, delicate to listen to, let alone touch. Monolithic drones, full of beauty, rise higher than ever. Inflating strings and sparse, almost minimalist piano passages grace the ears of the listener. The experimental side is, fortunately, tightly confined and restricted to a flurry of garbled voices and little electronic touches that stay a short while. The cool piano is elegantly played, repeating a couple of passive phrases that then melt away when the drones arrive. The piano returns, and along with the drone they skirt and glide in harmony, in unison, in and out of the cosmos.
The music is thoughtful, but stronger than its predecessor. The deep-sea drones drape themselves over the piano, seeming to call from beyond, from unfathomable depths lit only by pale, reflective lines. Every release is a different member of the same family, so they shouldn’t feel any pressure to copy their debut, the sound that brought about their original success. What’s done is done. And yet, you can tell that they are in love with the sound, with their original creation. Chandeliers of golden, radiant sound hang suspended in the air, illuminating the darker piano with their ancient light. A Winged Victory for the Sullen liven up a genre so frequently a slave to the dark. They light the way with music so powerful, so emotional, that it breaks free of any typical standards you’d try to label it; it becomes less a musical experience, and more of something you can almost touch.
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