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Auscultation - III Music Album Reviews

Producer Joel Shanahan expands his palette, mingling shades of ’90s ambient techno with distant echoes of the Cocteau Twins. Even at the record’s mellowest, muted rhythms knock like a racing heart.

At the close of a lengthy podcast interview last year, the electronic musician Joel Shanahan was asked if he had anything to add. “Play from the heart,” he said, without missing a beat. “Treat people well.” Over the past eight years, Shanahan’s idiosyncratic techno has encompassed jazzy whimsy, cosmic drift, and moody ambience; what ties it together is its questing spirit. Even when it zigzags, it’s marked by a palpable sense of forward motion, a yen for progress. For a time, that merely meant finding his style and honing his chops. But those two dictates—to be real and to be good—underscore something essential to Shanahan’s music: the attempt to envision a better world.
Shanahan makes music under a variety of aliases, chief among them Golden Donna and Auscultation. He has roots in punk and DIY communities; in his early years performing and throwing parties in the electronic-music hinterlands of Madison, Wisconsin, he was instrumental in bridging the gap between rock kids and dance crowds. Today, in interviews and op-eds, Shanahan espouses the need for safe spaces for clubbers and fair compensation for artists.
He has also been candid about his depression, which worsened following Oakland, California’s Ghost Ship fire, where 36 people died, including several of his friends; he was on the bill that night and watched helplessly as the building went up in flames. But Shanahan has been remarkably prolific in the years since, relocating to Portland, Oregon, and putting out a steady stream of new material, much of it exclusive to Bandcamp. In March, he quietly self-released a new Golden Donna album that built upon his signature style of live-to-tape hardware techno in exciting ways. But III, his new album under his Auscultation alias, is something else. It sounds like a breakthrough.

Auscultation started out in 2014 as Shanahan’s ambient-house alter ego, the measured yin to Golden Donna’s ebullient yang. His self-titled debut under the alias was muted yet light-hearted, with a jazzy house lilt half-hidden beneath layers of tape hiss. The following year’s L’étreinte Imaginaire was equally hazy but more emotionally ambiguous, its chiming synths twinkling in the shadows like a Cheshire Cat smile. The first track on III, “Glowing Hearts in the Rainbow Room,” feels at first like a continuation of L’étreinte Imaginaire, wrapping ringing chords in endless reverb. But the new album boasts a more complex palette, mingling shades of ’90s ambient techno with distant echoes of the Cocteau Twins’ dream pop. All six tracks are clearly pieces of a larger whole, and a haunted air hangs over much of the album, even in moments of seeming calm: There are spectral voices and metallic shrieks, and the music teems with activity, innumerable tiny details rustling almost imperceptibly in the murk.

Shanahan seems to be testing one of ambient techno’s core assumptions, that dance music removed from the dancefloor must be soothing. Even at the record’s mellowest, muted rhythms knock like a racing heart, and the low end has the felt-but-not-heard presence of a neighbor’s house party. Shanahan’s basslines have always been his secret weapon, and here they are stealthier and more powerful than ever, cutting through the gloom like neon lights through heavy fog.

These songs are mercurial: moments of calm swiftly upended by anxious passages, and vice versa. By the album’s fourth track, “Turn Down These Voices,” it becomes clear just how complex Shanahan’s emotional terrain can be. Whimsical synth chords and swift, scratchy drum programming suggest the world’s largest, emptiest ice rink; the beat is surprisingly heavy. Plaintive, pitch-shifted voices gradually grow louder; the words are unintelligible, but the psychic pain is obvious, and despite the title’s plea, their wraithlike cries keep rising in volume until the very end.

“Fool” plays with similar contrasts, ribbons of synth twisting gently over a brisk, distorted drum pattern, the atmosphere thick and cloudy. As the drums rise in the mix, what at first felt placid turns turbulent, sneakily forceful. This is something new: ambient as a clenched fist, fingernails pressing painfully into one’s palm. The haze that has always permeated Auscultation’s music here feels like it has actual physical properties, like something to be pushed through. It suggests real bodily effort, as tangible as sweat and tears. By the time the album reaches its conclusion with the gentle, beatless “Exit,” the feeling of catharsis is unmistakable. In a medical context, auscultation is the diagnostic act of listening to sounds in the body, and on III, Shanahan makes the process of healing as palpable as the smoothness of a scar where blood once ran.

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