Rarely does grief translate well into words. Condensing a relationship with someone you cared about into meager sentences can feel so repressive and undignified. But it’s impossible to persevere through silence or to retain those feelings of loss internally, as they are mulled over to the sound of absence. Distant memories are recalled and random flashbacks intertwine with moments you might consider more meaningful: this person made you laugh; you watched movies together; you talked for hours at a time about nothing at all. But negotiating emotional responses through an inner monologue becomes confusing, and your eyes well without warning, a consequence of that proverbial “bottling up.”
These feelings are my own, as appropriate to discuss in the context of Niaiw Ot Vile as I’ll let them be — a response to the music and nothing more. The album comes with a dedication, a shout out to a friend of the musician who passed away some years ago. I know nothing of their relationship, only where their paths crossed artistically. But that’s what these compositions indicate: a discreet outflow of personal sentiment wrapped in dedicative lines to an old companion. Maybe it’s presumptuous to assign my experiences of loss here, but as a listener who feels a connection with the record at hand, it feels like the most honest reaction.
Chris Douglas released material under his better-known O.S.T. moniker for Wai Cheng’s Isolate Records back in 2003. Cheng died three years later of unknown causes, but remains a well-respected pioneer for the electronic underground, having released material by Venetian Snares, AeQuo, and Nommo Ogo, among others. The label was short lived, but it appeared to be heading in a direction Douglas is familiar with. After igniting an ambient techno scene in San Francisco at a young age, Douglas went on to work with likes of Autechre and Drexciya, gaining himself the reputation and the exposure that’s led to more than 20 releases under a plethora of monikers over the last two decades. On Niaiw Ot Vile, his third full-length as Dalglish and his debut for PAN, it’s the connection he had with Isolate and its founder that peaks between the cracks of this tangled web of outré electronics.
When introducing a recent mix for RecordLabelRecords, Douglas indicated a sense of frustration with the current state of electronic music, expressing a particular ire for “Enya tribute bands” and “Arpeggio reliant moles.” The mix comprises three and a half hours of non-electronic material that splices Ween, Arab Strap, and David Sylvian alongside Company Flow and Kool Keith — not as a testament to mixing capability, but as a sentimental gesture that recalls “hanging out with your mates having a bevy.” It’s a refreshing angle that works as a parallel to the personal and exploratory recordings on Niaiw Ot Vile, which houses 10 elaborately composed electro-acoustic tracks that evoke a predominantly sullen yet convoluted atmosphere. Despite a detachment of moniker and medium, the mixtape reflects Douglas’ approach here. These tracks refrain from spilling open at the seams, from pouring with pristine harmonies and flamboyant strings, favoring instead a subtle sense of loss that’s deployed across fragile ambient textures and prickly synths. It’s akin to walking carefully across a frozen lake, where each sound is wavering on a crisp, delicate surface. It’s dramatic and poignant, but also quite frightening, because you never know how thick the ice is or whether you are going to come crashing unexpectedly through it.
The most serene examples come on the album’s distinctly ambient offerings, “Out Kutzk,” “Seit Nuin” and “Oidhche.” Although the former flourishes in a sound that resembles crystal-glass vibration frequency moments before shattering, it’s balanced by a distant surface crackle and sporadic key sequences. The arrangement is layered so that the synths are most prominent, which frames the emotive angle, the lower keys taking on a sedated pace that amplifies a mixture of contemplation and sadness. As the closing number, “Oidhche” is much less fragmented, colliding high and low tones in a manner that’s both stimulated and content, a soundtrack to the reconciliation of circumstance that’s dented only by the micro-static glitches that puncture the track’s stability. Each of these ambient numbers have a vista-like quality that comes from the clarity they expose in the company of the barbed and confrontational pieces that surround them (take the writhing obscurity of “Ciaradh” or the fractured menace of “Sclunt”). Those noticeably more haphazard pieces act as a defense mechanism, where the tones they project convey the wilderness of grief — they are almost mournful in their depiction, as though they are at breaking point.
The distinction that Douglas made between his taste and those of the arpeggio moles is easy to observe on the rest of the record; there is little repetition and almost no simultaneous harmonic sequencing to be found here. The music is void of any desire to form new memories by means of integrated recall — the trajectory is continual and spacious, but with little room to move around. The jittery clamor of “Viochlm” and the pensive throb of “Donsfe” perhaps best represent this, where the former plucks and twists at nimble fibers, and where the latter is a scattering of bass tones and echo that rattles about its duration like a spasmodic battering ram. The most impressive part is how alive and cherished both tracks are as living components within the album, which is dependent on their vibrancy in the throes of such a somber setting.
Niaiw Ot Vile is concise in its lack of immediate gratification and exceptional in the autonomy it grants its listeners. Due to a lack of loops or samples, Douglas forces his audience to listen again and to rethink their individual responses to his sound, which is incredibly well executed regardless of the reasons behind its composition. That leaves you in a personal space, alone and with the possibility of discerning your own connections with your surroundings. Even if grief doesn’t translate easily into words, Douglas has created a environment that brings such images to mind in a way that’s generous and respectful. His dedication to Wai Cheng is difficult to interpret as an outsider — as it should be — but the intricacies and effectiveness of this album amount to a gesture for which the recipient would surely be most grateful.