Loscil Endless Falls

[Kranky; 2010]

Styles: ambient, minimal, drone
Others: Gas, The Caretaker, William Basinski, Destroyer

So, in a routine relative-popularity scan of Last.fm, I learned that Loscil has more listeners than ambient-deity-by-consensus William Basinski. Meanwhile, Endless Falls — Loscil’s first album in four years — floats by its official release date with barely an inclined head from the press. This, even with a guest vocal spot from Dan Bejar, a name that single-handedly evokes hype-fueled indiecest rings if there ever were one. So what gives? Has Scott Morgan been filed away as “mostly harmless” — as it’s a little too easy for ambient musicians to become? Or is Morgan dangerously aware of how his negative space forces critics to confront “what makes them tick”? The song title “Rorschach” from Plume admitted as much, but no one could figure out if that was tongue-in-cheek.

In most of Endless Falls, Morgan’s given us even less to work with. His emphasis has always been on two core elements: overarching concepts, which sometimes threaten to supersede the sound itself; and the sort of organic instrumentation that came to a head in Plume. More Rorschach than ever, Endless Falls doesn’t do away with these elements — it just masks them, alludes to them, teases them out. There’s a sort of imposed solipsism here, when tones sometimes seem to have different throb rates depending on the listener’s caffeine intake. But Morgan himself is absolutely aware of, and screwing around with, conventions, assumptions, and expectations. For example, the “Ambient, Minimal, Drone” trifecta is fine for glancers, but Loscil’s a battle cry for the fans rightly pissed off at that homogenization. Writers have even misleadingly referred to his music as “techno,” probably just because of his elusive, nagging periodics: “Dub for Cascadia” is obviously anything but dub, but it and other tracks have bass lines that are practically subaudible yet regular as a molten dance beat.

Sometimes tagged with a coin-flip between Steve Reich and Philip Glass, post-Illinois pop “minimalism” has gotten to the point that it’s synonymous with dense, sequenced arpeggios of any kind. It’s got momentum — that’s why it works in pop music — while a well-placed drone can have the opposite effect of nudging time out of the picture. Morgan, embedded in the Kranky catalogue for almost a decade, is well aware of how fragile this distinction is, and when he takes a magnifying glass to it, the whole thing fries. The periodic “tone” (as only instinct and proud tradition would identify it) in “Shallow Water Blackout” seems like it should hold the whole track together, but it ends up doing the opposite. It resonates with too many overtones to locate harmonically or temporally; it’s just a rising and falling mirage. Even asserting that it’s regular would be a leap of dogma. So just as drone’s “pure tone” is always necessarily a wave with a frequency on some level, a form of repetition in itself, so too can the semblance of repetition and minimalism become tools of the infinite. Morgan plays time like an accordion.

The organic instrumentation that does remain is disembodied: in a different context, the rising, ever-accumulating string figure on the title track could be mistaken for post-rock, but here it feels more like a nod to labelmates Stars of the Lid (as if the natural horizon for drone has to be neoclassical). The last man standing from Plume, Jason Zumpano (also of the Vancouver ring, if that surname sounds familiar), returns to add a few piano notes here and there, but he never seems to be imposing or extrapolating a shape — the pianos just act like more clues to an invisible structure. These few-and-far-between neoclassical instruments are among the clearest sounds on Endless Falls; you get the sense that most of the others have been scrubbed obsessively but selectively. The spiraling lo-fi clicks in “Estuarine” and “Showers of Ink” probably originally emanated from a single speck of dust on a needle, but they’re reverbed and looped to the point that they’re the pillars that hold up each song. This is an old story with Morgan, the worship and inflation of the imperfect until it becomes perfect.

As for “The Making of Grief Point,” it’s worth exorcizing all of your predictions for a spoken-word Bejar piece — everything that his recent trajectory, from Swan Lake to “The Bay of Pigs,” would teach us to expect can go out the window. Bejar’s far from his self-parodic self here; if anything, his words evoke a voiced-over letter home in some Oscar-hoarding historical fiction. And frankly, he nails it: the journal of the making of an imaginary ambient piece is a slice of beautiful, impressionistic, and often haunting poetry elevated by Loscil’s backing. The pacing is excellent: he lets “I have lost interest in music. It is horrible” hang isolated, without explanation. You actually forget that it’s Bejar until he adds his usual impulsive flair to the word “shit” and later when he refers to “Shooting Rockets.” Glimpses of nonfiction: “The message from the critical reception of Dreams was quite clear: ‘We will not be listening to you any further.’” Even though they’re some of his best, I was admittedly a little disappointed to learn they were Bejar’s words — “At some point when it is made, I will explain this record, word for word, swear to God” came off as a vote of confidence that this stuff can be written about, especially given how the piece upsets the balance of Endless Falls. The track’s success is, in some ways, at the expense of the other 85% of the album.

Think about it: the only humanity we’ve had to cling to so far are a few breaths between droning woodwinds on “Fern and Robin,” and Morgan of all people knows how earth-shaking the introduction of language can be for his music. The sound that backs “Grief Point” might be some of the most interesting and varied on the album, but it’ll remain impossible to say because of how one listens to spoken word — mood becomes much more important than detail. I’ve been wracking my brain for how this could have been done so that all the album’s different virtues win. Release “Grief Point” as a separate 7-inch? Disperse the vocals throughout Endless Falls? As it stands, the album that seems like Loscil’s least conceptual, and least social, suddenly has a “point” (har har) with a 53-minute intro. Bejar’s voice is the album’s sole press-kit bullet; it’s supposed to relieve the listener’s duty; it’s supposed to make the album easier to grasp. But even if it feels that way, nothing’s any easier. These days, Loscil’s throwing wrenches instead of bones, which fans can blessedly agree is not a perfectible art: where he’ll go next has never been more up in the air.

Links: Loscil - Kranky

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