Onwards and upwards, we follow Luke Wyatt into the sky. With his days of dropping ebbed-out techno splits on L.I.E.S. fully behind him, Torn Hawk wades even deeper than ever before into the clean waters of high-definition inspirational musics on Union and Return, furthering his motto of overcoming personal strife through sweat and self-improvement (a traditional perspective filtered through the utter absurdity of the man’s music). Wyatt is an undeniable product of the past decade’s worth of nostalgia-mining micro genres, the strands of nü-age and chillwave and vaporwave all coursing through his warped MIDI repurposings and layered shred-guitar therapy, but what truly sets him apart from the digital hordes is the complete absence of cynicism throughout his work. Although all of his macho poses and referential song titles may be winking, it is always through the lens that maybe these gestures were actually onto something the first time around, that irony is only useful as a mode through which we might enjoy the world around us even more. The present in Torn Hawk’s universe is a gift, and the past the key to unlocking that gift, not through disturbing re-assessment, but rather through celebration and restlessly marching onwards, forcefully, tearfully, head held high in wholesome acceptance.
Union and Return, however, is a peculiar embodiment of this zen outlook. Rather than pushing himself to his physical limits as he might’ve in the past, Wyatt surrounds himself with a new horizon here, one built from pristine flourishes of classical music and slight, meandering song arrangements. There’s a heavy archangel vibe to the proceedings, all foreboding towers and crystalline chambers, and the tonal environment Torn Hawk builds seems more intent on establishing its own internal logic than it does on acquiescing to Wyatt’s. Where before his rhythms bustled and knocked their way to glory, now they simply shuffle along, clearing almost all space to make room for focusing on the bare, hanging sonics themselves. At its peaks, like the cavernous “Feeling Is Law” or the respited “Thornfield,” Union and Return is less music for climbing a mountain to than surveying its summit, its grandness more moving for its serenity than its adrenaline-inciting capabilities. But to that point, what hope do any of us have of climbing a mountain when there remain sores and damages to our souls, our very bodies even? We all come bearing scars, whether bestowed or self-inflicted, reminders that the path to self-actualization isn’t always one that starts already at the foot of the hill. Motivation must be capable of taking root at the absolute bottom level, so perhaps Union and Return is a music for hospitals, for uncluttered spaces, a soft and nurturing reminder that the world spins on even as we lie in our deepest moments of recovery.
This shift toward delicate patience over aggressive action ultimately shares the same goals as Wyatt’s previous, more low-end activities. If he was coaching us to get off the couch before, now he’s just making sure we aren’t in any pain, delivering a steady set of easy, hopeful music that still tugs at the same neo-historical fabric so central to the Torn Hawk project. It feels similar in spirit to airport music, video game music, gym music in its willingness to be a background rather than a startling subject. For Wyatt, it is a gateway to opening up new sounds and dimensions in his work, a taste of what other worlds he might be interested in pulling from in his quest to achieve maximum potential realization. The sounds of old commercials and unnatural instrument simulations are still present and accounted for here, but there’s nothing grotesque about how Wyatt has applied them; on closing track “Die Swimming in the Sea Here,” a mighty, canned trumpet riff embellishes Wyatt’s central motif, leaving one with the impression that his inclusion of a fake brass section stems less from metaphor and more from the budgetary restrictions of hiring actual horn players. Wyatt processes his music through epic terms, even in its mildest moments, and if Union and Return isn’t a final destination, it is still undeniably a stepping stone, a vista for us to gaze upon with Wyatt as he campaigns on towards total, purified elevation of the mind and body. His is an idealist’s approach to art, a thirst for inspiring gripping and genuine change in his listeners that isn’t easy to force; but if Union and Return is any indicator, just because you haven’t reached your peak doesn’t mean you aren’t still working.