Just in case you missed Obscure Mythology 101 in school — hell, I even did a year of classical Greek and we never got any further than sniggering about pederasty — Orcus was lord of the underworld and punisher of broken promises. Death and betrayal, in turn, are classic pop themes, but the reason I mention the god who would later transmute into Dis Pater (Pluto, now sadly demoted from planetary status) and then the more familiar Hades is because the genus Orcinus, to which the orca or killer whale belongs, is named for him — presumably, emerging from a misbegotten coupling (Free Willy?) with Poseidon.
The album under discussion, though it couldn’t be described by that adjective, is itself the outcome of a union — in this case, that of Rafael Anton Irisarri (who also records as The Sight Below) and Thomas Meluch (a.k.a. Benoît Pioulard). Orcas is closer to the atmospherics of Irisarri’s oeuvre under his own name than to the chilly-yet-lulling beats of The Sight Below. Rather than a traditional or neoclassical ambient clean-ness, there’s a healthy dose of crackle, and at times the combination of acoustic strings and vocals verges upon a sedated vibe lying somewhere between Slowdive’s final album and Mojave 3’s first. That is, Pygmalion’s strategy of minimalist repetition can be traced, though it is not taken to the same Satie-esque degree; while the bare, spare emotions and sonic techniques of country and folk (and here we encounter the presence of Meluch) are refracted through that lens, placed in the isolation chamber and purposefully deprived of their gutsiness — shades of Nick Drake.
The nome d’arte of the duo, and of their eponymous album, is certainly in tune with the present trend for aquatic moods and imagery vaguely redolent of the New Age, but we wonder where the aggression of the killer whale is to be found — and its black and white here merge into a paradoxically rich grey, something akin to the putative color of all cats — and so, here, of sea lions (sometimes considered the whales’ slaves). Meluch’s voice is a gentle, plaintive instrument, melancholically indie in a way that is immediately familiar yet fails to deliver the irritations of the whine (often, in any case, simply a term of dismissal that allows one to disengage from content). Resignation is more appropriate than tragedy, yet both are equally dignified.
Orcas at first seems nondescript (and as such works well as background music, if your foreground is, let’s say, a wintry gazebo), but it’s an album one ‘finds’ after repeated close listens, in which found-sounding sounds coalesce into a kind of understated, broken-but-accessible idiom, neither hauntological nor folktronic, but organic in the sense of an Andy Goldsworthy artwork. Despite the absence of beats on all but a handful of tracks, there are some unexpected juxtapositions of acoustics and electronic drones that nonetheless never approach the discomforts of noise (though toward the album’s close, these occasionally stray too close to Fennesz for comfort). At times, the lyrics are a tad portentous (“How does one see himself as more than what he is”), and the more lyrical (in both senses), poppier moments can come across a little weaker (as on “I Saw My Echo”); but elsewhere they resolve into plain statements of emotion, neither clichéd nor particularly original, but genuinely moving: “I never cared about you really.” Some of the more overtly ethereal tracks may be less interesting considered as pieces in themselves, but they function in the context of mood while framing the spare, fragile gorgeousness of moments like “Carrion.” Ironically, Broadcast cover “Until Then,” which transmutes the original’s weird melody into an insistent, childlike piano line, is closer to the nomenclature one might expect would be appropriate for music such as this.
But in the reference to the carcass, to what remains, there’s that hint of violence again, of trauma, but an icy trauma, the cold aftermath of Deleuzian cruelty, the (white) birch. If this is truly ‘ambient’ music, music for an environment, it’s music for Sacher-Masoch’s steppe (if not Tim Hecker’s tundra) — but the steppe precisely as it exists in snowbound bedroom fantasy.