Time is weird. You’ve got heads and mystics claiming that time is an illusion; theologians and politicians claiming that time’s forward movement is about fulfillment and progress; and physicists who are nearly as puzzled as we are about why we constantly move forward into our eventual entropic doom. Various mythologies for time exist: according to some strains of Greek myth, Time and Inevitability were the parents of the world; in others, Cronus, the Titan who became confused with time itself, ate his own children after castrating Uranus, the god of the Heavens; the Vedas reckon time across lengths much longer than the duration of the known universe (in the trillions of years); the Mayans had prophecies in multiple cyclical calendars for every single day over hundreds of centuries; the list goes on. Time begins, time ends; religion provides all sorts of crazy explanations of how those events occur. You can’t make a time travel movie without nerds pointing out the paradoxes. And yet, time rolls on, regardless of our speculations or misunderstandings. Music follows it, wherever it goes.
For Shade Themes from Kairos, three frequent collaborators rejoin to musically explore the weirdness of temporality. Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O’Malley have collaborated in both Sunn O))) and Nazoranai (with Keiji Haino), while Randall Dunn (of Master Musicians of Bukkake and various production credits across many genres) has produced records for both Sunn O))) and Ambarchi’s solo work. The three come together for Shade Themes from Kairos, which evolved out of a score for Belgian fimmaker/multimedia artist Alexis Destoop’s project Kairos, a film about an outpost worker for a corporation that has monopolized the mining of “raw time” after a temporal catastrophe. The disgruntled protagonist ventures into the desert known as the zone where time is mined, hoping to find some “raw time” for himself. Destoop characterizes the film as a dérive, an unplanned journey through a landscape that in itself contains the conceptual character of empty time: the process of continuing, forward, with no plan but a possible telos. Since Shade Themes from Kairos is an expansion of the soundtrack, it seems insufficient to critique it on the level of its integration with the visual storytelling, the editing of which occurred after the conception of the music anyway. However, the subject matter of the film does seem crucial to the interpretation of the music, since the plot was a seed-concept for the pieces.
Each piece of music on the album is long enough to get lost in, with the shortest clocking in at nearly nine minutes. Something happens to human attention at that length: it struggles, it squirms to think against our attempts to control it. To say that lengthy pieces like the gorgeous guitar drone-epic “Ebony Pagoda,” the album’s closer, are “meditative” is to write the story backwards; in order to reach the level of attention they demand, it requires dropping other mental commitments for longer periods than our brain can typically handle, pressing our listening attention against the flood of thoughts and other perceptions. The state that lengthy pieces (especially those with slow or minuscule changes over their course) suggest we enter requires serious work to achieve. In doing so, we discover the malleability of time itself: it yields to our attention. This yielding never prevents the music’s continuation, but it expands our awareness of the time it fills, giving us a greater sense of the moment of its duration.
Kairos, in Greek, refers to the moment of occurrence — that is, it refers to time in its sense as “the right time” (as opposed to chronos, which refers to time in its measurable, countable sense). Thus, kairos is itself an expansion of countable, empty time. It’s the aspect of time in which music most appropriately resides: time in its sense as the moment unfolding into eternity — the moment, the proper time for occurrence, recording music onto the eternal temporal record. Shade Themes from Kairos seems to communicate this metaphysical quality. With the exception of “Sometimes,” which features the voice of Japanese psych-folk songrwiter Ai Aso and thereby anchors us in the present with the continuous novelty of speech, each of the pieces on this album feature a kind of endless quality in their slow shifts and constancy. Ambarchi’s heavy-psych drums on “Temporal, Eponymous” feel like they will never change or end, even though listening to them at varying points on the recording reveal that they are constantly shifting in minute ways. Where more obvious shifts occur, such as the sudden entrance of a tabla on “Circumstances of Faith” or Aso’s voice, they’re aids to our attention, preventing us from allowing the moment to slip back into “raw time.”
Ultimately, despite these thematic resonances, Shade Themes from Kairos is a slab of heavy psychedelia whose thoughtfulness mostly consists in the manipulation of rock genre structures into temporal meditations. Their wandering quality seems conscious, even where it’s tiresome. Their relative consistency in sonic quality accurately reflects the arid, time-deserted landscape out of which they grew. Each instant reminds us of the rest: the guitars on “Temporal, Eponymous” will stretch out across “Ebony Pagoda;” the drums on “The Space Between” seem to reappear with slight variations across the album. It’s like seeing the same rock on the horizon at different times of day, with the certainty that it will continue to exist indefinitely. These themes, both musically and conceptually, bear the mark of eternity even in their particularity. It’s through the lens of the particular that we discover time itself, unfolding before us, ready to receive our attention. It’s a long journey that brings us from wandering attention to attentive wandering, stalking not the final space of our fulfillment, but time itself; but perhaps Shade Themes from Kairos is the opportune moment to take it.