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Lawrence English - Observation of Breath Music Album Reviews

Lawrence English - Observation of Breath Music Album Reviews
Performed on a 132-year-old pipe organ, the latest project from the Australian sound artist dials up the volume and revels in the rumble.

The world famously quieted during lockdown. Lawrence English, on the other hand, used the opportunity to get loud. When he wasn’t busy running his label Room40, a gathering place for experimental musicians like David Toop, Merzbow, and Beatriz Ferreyra, or editing archival field recordings from the Amazon rainforest, English logged many hours seated at a 132-year-old pipe organ in his hometown of Brisbane, Australia, feeding air into it until the walls shook.

It wasn’t his first time on the organ. English had already incorporated recordings of the same instrument into his 2014 album Wilderness of Mirrors and 2017’s Cruel Optimism, digitally sandblasting his source material into a blackened fuzz similar to the work of Ben Frost and Tim Hecker. But for 2020’s Lassitude, he took a different route. Rather than covering his sounds in layers of distortion, he simply let the tones be, filling the empty concert hall with chords held so long that they came to seem more like weather systems than compositions. In place of musical motifs or events—melodic figures, rhythmic patterns, even something as simple as an audible step between notes—Lassitude’s two 20-minute pieces simply hang in mid-air, sullen as the silence between two people no longer on speaking terms.

Recorded during the same sessions, Observation of Breath shifts the emphasis from minimalism to maximalism, dialing up the volume and reveling in the rumble. There’s still not much happening in these pieces. “And a Twist,” by far the shortest track at less than three minutes long, is the only one that contains something resembling a melody: Its searching, right-hand figure stumbles uncertainly over quivering mid-range tone clusters, mulling over minor seconds with furrowed brow. On the three remaining tracks, English applies varying amounts of pressure, leaning into his massing tones as though slowly tightening the crank on an iron vise. All three are similar in shape to Lassitude’s spectral drones, but they differ in force.

“A Torso” might be Sunn O))) unplugged: Anchored by a glowering pedal tone for the duration of its 10-minute expanse, it is a charcoal fog of bass. But as you acclimate to the darkness, you begin to perceive a world of detail. The bass sound slowly pulses, like the breathing of a beast at rest. In the high end, a faint whistling pricks the air and is gradually joined by softly shrieking kin, a confederacy of tea kettles. The buzz bristles, porcupine-like; as tones layer, they create secondary pulses, a moiré overlay of trembling air. It’s an overwhelmingly physical sound, one that orients you within the particulars of the space in which you are listening. Shift your head, and the room spins.

“A Binding,” six minutes long, is simpler: a single consonant chord that seems to glow from within, like light through a forest; ghostly tones softly flare up from out of nowhere before disappearing into the murk. It’s gentle, calming. The closing “Observation of Breath,” on the other hand, revisits the gloomy mood of Lassitude. Twenty-one minutes long, it is the album’s most patient piece; outwardly, it seems like a single held note. It starts out muted, like a dial tone wrapped in cotton batting. But, as with “A Torso,” it comes alive over time, thickening almost inaudibly. Pinpoints of light pierce the darkness; overtones fan out in shimmering rays. The edge of the mix crackles like a thing on fire. It changes so gradually as to be almost imperceptible, but if you skip through the track, you’ll hear immediately how it evolves, sections piling up like a fistful of Pantone swatches of different shades of gray.

“Observation of Breath” drives home English’s interest in the combined powers of density and duration: tones packed so thick you can barely pick them apart, extended until they eclipse all other inputs. These may not be particularly original ideas; drone and doom musicians have been attacking similar techniques for years. And other recent recordings—from FUJI||||||||||TA and Kali Malone, for instance—have done more to explore the organ’s expressive dimension. But these comparisons don’t lessen Observation of Breath’s sheer brute power—particularly when it’s heard good and loud, so that the floor trembles and the walls shake, exactly as English intended.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Lawrence English - Observation of Breath Music Album Reviews Lawrence English - Observation of Breath Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, September 30, 2021 Rating: 5

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