Review Time: Wreck and Reference — Absolute Still Life
Here are some garbage words about a very peculiar and possibly exquisite album.
I cannot write objectively about Wreck and Reference — but I am going to try, because trying things that have never worked might work some day, I can feel it in my bones. (I’ve previously written about the band here and here in case you need more garbage words to pad your garbage day.)
Absolute Still Life is the fourth full-length release by Wreck and Reference, and it marks another turning point for the duo, which, as a reference to a career defined by turning points, is a pretty redundant thing to say. The fact is that Felix Skinner and Ignat Frege have never made the same record twice, and if you are not weird enough in your heart or perverse enough in your predilections to notice the glaring shifts from one record to the next then that is your problem and you should seek assistance to better yourself and improve your understanding of the world. Let’s not belabor this history lesson. 2012’s No Youth was essentially avant-garde goth for black metal fans who’d grown disenchanted with everything about black metal. Follow-up Want from 2014 was a disarmingly quiet album full of cold digital wastes and the kind of spiritual despondence that actually prevents suicide because in order for one to bother killing oneself one should first take an interest in oneself, no? Then in 2016 came Indifferent Rivers Romance End, a warm and lush yet eviscerating album that almost flirted with a sort of healthy sadness rather than sheer nihilism. Now it is 2019, a very exciting year to be alive, if for no other reason than we have Absolute Still Life to look forward to.
I was kind of hoping W&R would not innovate again; that they’d release a sequel to Indifferent Rivers, as that record was all but perfect and I really can’t see another band doing something similar whether on purpose or by accident. I don’t want there to be only one record in the world that sounds like it. And yet, Absolute Still Life does not sound like it. Why not? Well, for starters, the band has previously always made music with only vocals, a sampler and drums, whereas this time around there are still vocals and a sampler but the drums are exclusively programmed using somewhere between 8 and 16 bits, and I suspect that all manner of auxiliary electronic equipment has been deployed in order to craft such densely layered instrumentals. The density is suffocating at times, orgiastic at others, and best exemplified by the climax to “Sturdy Dawn”, where layered yelling is drowned out by a piercing computerized quasi-melody. Conclusion: In contrast to the clean analogue feel of Indifferent Rivers, and in concert with the noisier Want, Absolute Still Life bears the sharpness of a digital production.
Despite how the back half of Want tended to smear into a droning arachnophobic nightmare, for the most part Felix and Ignat have always crafted very distinct songs, each one essentially a little world unto itself. Not so here, which is not to say that every song on Absolute Still Life sounds the same, but rather that the album itself is the experience, not the individual tracks. The experience is a journey, but also a bit of a blur. Strange that a work with “Still Life” in the title should operate more as a piece of impressionism, yes? There are no discrete forms or lines here, no naked objects, no shadows whose origin can be inferred by their shape. Well, except for the loops (I think they’re loops, they sound like loops, like the type of short, repetitious little ear-worm samples that an artist like DJ Shadow or Mamaleek or sometimes Portishead might throw into a track). The loops, if that is what they are, are quite discreet, almost jarringly so when you consider the busily amorphous environments into which they intrude. (For reference: the bleating trumpet leading “A Mirror” to its end; the clipped ululations throughout “Stubborn Lake”; the chiming bell and slightly out-of-tune piano line in “What Goes In and Comes Out”; etc.)
Loops or no loops, no one song really stands above or even out from the others. They all sound different, and yet never different enough to erase what came before. They tend to build upon one another, even to inbreed with one another. What I’m really trying to say is that these are not so much compositions as productions: excursions into texture and contrast rather than narrative beds for the agonized and beguiling poetry of the lyrics.
Poetry still abounds from one end of the record to the other, although now the vocals are always either buried in the dizzying mix or warped by charming effects. Felix’s harsh wailing is all but gone, usurped by quieter vocalizations that sound either squashed and creepy, as in “A Mirror”, or oddly peaceful, as in the warbly moaning in “Amends”. Meanwhile, Ignat still lets his deranged barking out here and there — usually amidst such a hail of hot digital fuzz that his vehemence is blunted, I dare say softened. And softening is the key here, I guess. These songs will not confront you; if you’re not careful, they may even lull you into a state in which you are at once unfulfilled and resigned. This is not an angry record. I can’t even say it’s a particularly sad one. It’s intense, for sure, yet also kind of funky and danceable, a decisive plunge away from genrelessness and into electronica. The good kind of electronica, defined by intelligent beats, compelling timbres and an ass-load of noise and glitch. Is trip-glitch a thing? What about glitch-hop? Because especially in its slower, quieter stretches, which are numerous, Absolute Still Life sort of sounds like wonky trip-hop. “Hop” being the operative word here: I get the sense that in search of inspiration the producers took Ayahuasca and listened to [insert literally any hip-hop album, this is not my area of expertise].
Yes, Ayahuasca. Absolute Still Life certainly does not sound like the product of normative cognitive function. It is so druggy and twitchy and uh…synesthetic, for lack of a better word, that it feels like a work composed by an alien consciousness after sampling liberally from the entire library of human music.
Ah fuck, I’m in the weeds here. Can I start over?
No? There’s no time?
Well fuck. This’ll have to do it then.
Absolute Still Life will be released this Friday, July 19, 2019, by The Flenser, on vinyl, and digital, and also as a T-shirt that psychically excretes the music if you wear it for 666 days without washing it.
Header image via.