A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s The Undivided Five sees the return of Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie. Their fifth release – following their debut, self-titled album, two scores, and an EP – takes inspiration from abstract artist Hilma af Klint and the recurring nature of the perfect fifth chord. And the music has a cyclical feel to it, pushing on but always pulling back like a magnet, resolving to its final form after a powerful episode or another emotional struggle.
O’Halloran is in the middle of change himself, relocating from Berlin to Iceland after a decade in Germany. The album was recorded across six different sites, and its vast continents of sound linger in the mind. Orchestral samples were recorded in Budapest and album parts were re-recorded in Brussels. Ben Frost’s Reykjavik studio was used, and grand piano sections were recorded in an Italian woodland studio. The Undivided Five was finalised in Francesco Donadello’s Berlin studio, where all of their material has been mixed, aptly bringing the sound back to its home studio and retaining some essential ethos and spirit unique in its classical moods and ambient atmospheres; music of a special, delicate quality, hanging in the air like dust, but with all the force of a knockout punch. It also brought everything home, completing a perfect circle: the ultimate resolution. The unrivalled power of the fifth is on display here, and musicians understand the pull of it: once it’s played, it’s like a bell that signals the beginning of its last rites. Over the intervening years, their music together has been an incredible journey.
Orchestral strings trace lines over the earth and create new paths, and there’s always something new to discover. Their 2011 debut was cinematic, but their sound has now matured and grown. Work on film scores has helped to shape the music as it currently stands, giving it a wider screen and an inclination for storytelling, but the all-encompassing, sweeping swells are still replete with ambient and electronic elements. ‘The Slow Descent Has Begun’ is a fine example of this, because the piece builds and builds until it becomes a soul-crushing wave. When they pull this off, no other collaboration comes close. The emotional impact is huge: trembling, weeping, and very human.
We understand that times have changed. We have evolved, but we also didn’t want to forget the beginning
Even though the piano begins proceedings, the strings seem to take over. But The Undivided Five is as much a return to their past as it is a continuous step into the future: even when one remembers someone as a child, the eyes are still the same colour and the features still recognisable. Still, they look different, older. Since 2011, the two musicians have come a long way, and The Undivided Five is a testament to that. They’ve never forgotten their original sound, when a first chord came into being, but they’ve also expanded as a necessity for growth and a natural desire to change.
The pair were going through changes and were also influenced by af Klint’s spiritual ideas. She was part of a group named ‘The Five’, a circle of five women with a shared belief in the importance of trying to make contact with spirits, often through séances. The pair picked up on this through their unspoken collaborative process, picking up on each other’s wavelengths with a kind of telepathy; they just click, and even in live performances, just a nod of the head or a single look is enough to transform the music from a place of passive rest to a swelling wave of intense emotion and harmonic movements of upright grace.
Just when recording was getting underway, one of their closest friends passed away. And weeks after the funeral, O’Halloran found out that he was going to become a dad with the birth of his first child. Senses were heightened; mortality was all the more acute. The circle keeps on revolving, keeps on turning. The five senses and the harmonic perfect fifth, all working in harmony, working as one.
Their debut release for Ninja Tune has freed them up. With more space in which to utilise and deploy new ideas, their music is revitalised. Modern composition can breed lethargy and laziness, but the pair have always set the bar, be it with Wiltzie, as one half of Stars of the Lid and a plethora of other innovative projects over the years, or O’Halloran’s graceful and sensitive touch on the piano. This is a match made in Heaven, because they’re both sensitive artists, understanding where and when to pause or release. The fifth cannot be divided. Neither can their musicianship be dissected. They were born for this.