The Present- The Way We Are (Loaf Recordings)

 

The press release: “Touchstones include the music of La Monte Young, Dimitri Shostakovich, Wolfgang Voigt, Cluster, Black Dice, Claude Debussy, Aphex Twin, Can, Arthur Russell, Boredoms and Brian Eno, and yet it sounds like none of these.”

 Well, there’s a thing. Reminiscent of the then-unknown BS Johnson punting his first book to publishers with the casual claim that he’s the sole heir to Joyce and Beckett; both hugely self-aggrandising and off-putting to anyone hoping to make commercial capital from your work.

The Present’s debut album, World I See came out last year and was an interesting, intermittently engaging and admirably experimental work, mainly noted due to its Animal Collective connections. The Present is the project of NYC based Rusty Santos, producer of Panda Bear’s rightly-acclaimed Person Pitch LP as well as AC’s Sung Tongs, working in this case alongside a couple of mysterious accomplices known only as Mina (who brings the Japanese pop and folk influences), and Jesse.

With The Way We Are, Rusty, Mina and Jesse have not only followed up with an almost indecent swiftness, they’ve leapt light years ahead. If The World I See sounded pretty way out last year, now it sounds like faltering baby steps compared to The Way We Are.

The album doesn’t play all its aces at once, though it’s clear from the off that this is gonna be a heavier trip than its predeccesor. Opening track, ‘Medman’ sounds like vintage Radiophonic Workshop stuff; incidental Dr Who music soundtracking some Silurian or Sea Devil-like monster emerging threateningly from the deep… it even reprises the clunky, ominous rhythm of the classic theme tune. ‘Saltwater Trails’ is more atmospheric and subtle, but no less sinister once it catches ahold, like sirens luring you out into deadly quicksand… at first alluringly ethereal, then before you know it you’re up to your neck in musique concrete, and all kinds of degenerate spirits and marsh ghosts are being unleashed around you.  In fact, if the first track was Dr Who, this is Sapphire and Steel– voices of long-dead children echo in the distance, some spooky playground chant, the unknowingly departed mutter feebly to each other as all manner of psychic disturbances crack the ether. Do not play this with the lights out or under the influence of… well, actually, maybe do. It could be awesome. If you want your hair to turn white overnight, say.

Fading imperceptibly into ‘Space Meadow,’ we’re suddenly in smoother climes, three-and-a-half minutes of retro sci-fi ambience, inside the head of a valium and synthi-martini dosed 24th Century housewife awaiting her space pilot hubby’s re-entry to their satellite dream home, blissfully orbiting a cold dead planet. But ‘Shapeshifter’ marks the moment when she realises that someone’s spiked her drink: time speeds up and slows down in jerky bursts, her spatial perception starts strobing erratically, and all her digital labour-saving gadgets are malfunctioning and bursting into disobedient half-life at once. Is that the sound of an oxygen leak? Is that hubby knocking at the window, floating lifelessly asphxyated in space?

 ‘Press Play’ finds us back where we started, in vintage Dr Who territory: some hallucinatory March Of The Cybermen, intense, claustrophobic and quasi-operatic. It’s another mini-masterpiece of wordless electronic dread, but all of this is merely an overture for the album’s epic, 32-minute title track: the main act, the thing itself.

Solid clusters of sound dominate the first two minutes, like pressurised steam hissing from between solid metal plates. But then a distant, almost tribal rhythm emerges from behind the lonely singing of satellites, the ancient ghost of earth mysteries and rituals bleeding through into the modern machine age of digital communication and virtual language. After about five minutes this phases into an almost random confluence of urban noise, like jumbled radio waves passing through space, industrial vibrations with still the hint of the natural underneath it all and, for all the confusion, a sense of order, of directedness, even of a serenity beneath the chaos, just waiting to be tuned into. Indeed, as we approach the ten minute mark the chatter falls away and only a profound drone remains, like a mighty ray of light or some universal omnichord. Delicate piano melodies dance around an ineffable alien core that is still somehow warmly familiar. The planet breathing? There is something of Gaia theory to all this, of an alternative Koyaanisquatsi for the more complex, digitally-rerouted 21st Century.    

At the fifteen minute mark, nothing and everything is happening: in the new age minimalist stakes we’re nearer to Steve Reich than Phillip Glass. Gradually, more thin sonic layers are slipped in, one on top of the other, building up the levels of sound almost imperceptibly until, another ten minutes on, you realise you’re dealing with a veritable cacophony: still Reichian, but Richard James and Boards of Canada have dropped in for tea, and Eye from Boredoms is banging at the door. And after half an hour has passed, you realise it’s not a tea party at all, but a seance: calling up all the brutal, unquiet spirits of our age. And then, with an unsettling suddenness, it’s over. And silence doesn’t sound the same as it used to anymore.

The press release: “A kaleidoscopic trip influenced by New York City, The Ocean, Mountains, The Sun and the Trees, Andy Warhol, Yukio Mishima, David Lynch, Friedrich Nietzche, Buddhist Mantra, Mass Transit, Cats, Birds and life. Life in all its myriad complexity and confusions, in all its transcendent beauty and its horrendous brutality.” Which normally I would dismiss as pretentious twaddle. But in this case, one feels they might actually be understating things.

The Way We Are is an ambitious, breathtaking, resolutely forward-looking record. Not for the faint-hearted, nor the jaded thrillseeker. But for those interested in the serious and thoughtful avant-garde of digital music, look no further.  

  The Present? Sounds like the future to me.

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