Music listeners nowadays search relentlessly for variety and, like the human eye finding faces in wood grain or forming pictures in the clouds, seeks to order that variety by whatever means necessary. Critics will invent subgenres within subgenres, mash genre names together with relevant nouns and adjectives, and if that process finally misses the mark, we often toss it all under a catch-all, the genre-less genre: noise. Miles Whittaker (Demdike Stare) in his output as Suum Cuique is looking not so much to stretch your sense of musical order, but to reveal hidden opportunities within what once seemed exhausted of further potential. Whittaker makes no claim to breaking new ground; Ascetic Ideals may feel like an appendix or sub-basement to Demdike Stare’s sprawling Elemental, but using new instrumentation, methods, and structures, Whittaker continues to mine the still fertile recesses of his pre-established oeuvre.
Properly experiencing Ascetic Ideals requires deep listening. Each peal of static, each percussive sting, each spectral pad is rich with texture and yields to the attention of the ear, opening onto new lands within what might seem at first blush a typical ambient tone. Whittaker has traded his samples and much of his digital gear for analog instrumentation, allowing him to encode a different sort of timbral variety in the caverns of reverb and delay in which he treads. The digital/analog debate has existed in its inanity for decades now, but to call it a debate suggests that there is something to argue about. As many have said before: they’re just different. Matters of taste such as this one will never resolve, and the best artists will recognize when the use of either technology will suit their purpose. Whittaker’s choice here helps to distinguish the sound of this record from the more produced Elemental. In fact, Whittaker recorded much of Ascetic Ideals without overdubs, often even sending the raw mix straight to print. As opposed to Demdike Stare’s method of cloaking their sample sources with layers of process, Whittaker finds the murkiness within the devices themselves and allows them to shine without extra layers of varnish. This approach lets the analog processes reveal their own depths while also creating a more raw dynamic range. Sounds jut out of the mix as if trying to escape the recording, and jarring blasts sometimes disrupt the oceanic bliss hidden within the textural swash. These occasional bursts do not annoy so much as surprise, sometimes with horror-flick efficiency (did that opener get you?).
This is not a collection of odds and ends, nor does it fully break from the sound Whittaker helped develop on Elemental. Where Elemental maps a cave filled with varying terrain features — deep, resonant cavities; sharp stalactites; clusters of quartz crystal; running and stagnant waters; lurking monstrosities — Ascetic Ideals results from Whittaker’s use of that map to explore individual branches within the complex, digging into the walls to reveal un-plundered veins of minerals and diving into the depths of its tenebrous pools to drag out artifacts. Ascetic Ideals may not be the grandest statement Whittaker has made this year, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the material, revealing that even the most extensive journeys conceal unexplored territory.