Alex Zhang Hungtai Divine Weight

[NON; 2018]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: drone, ambient, church music
Others: Tim Hecker, William Basinski, Kali Malone, Eva-Maria Houben

“To be aware of an alien exterior to our perception is itself to sense God.”
– Vincent Garton

The divine can’t be easily defined. Its meaning escapes our endless attempts at understanding as a comforting or terrifying presence, attempts that ultimately try to give the divine a form that we can perceive. The gods of humanity multiply constantly, one replaced by another, time after time. Behind every iteration lurks the indescribable, forcing itself on the believers, often to the point where the idea of a divine presence becomes empty and abandoned through sheer inexplicability. On the other end is abstract horror, the realization that the divine is essentially something alien to us, that while we can give it a personality and put words into its imagined mouth, it ultimately can’t be understood, that reason as it is can’t perceive it and that it can only come to us in the form of a ghostly embrace.


As he himself says, Alex Zhang Hungtai composed Divine Weight, the first album under his own name, out of scraps — discarded saxophone recordings that hadn’t materialized into anything concrete. Laying there, unused, they had to be radically changed, pushed to their limits. Cut up, looped, resynthesized again and again until they became the building blocks of a spectral cathedral of the unknown.

The resulting compositions sound like church music of a nomad seeing ghosts of different times in different places, some long forgotten and some barely known. The music of Divine Weight is endlessly shifting and mutating, both crushingly heavy and weightless, ensuring that the album’s divinity does not lend itself to easy comprehension or one-dimensional understanding. Its ethereal presence is not given; it seeps in through the cracks, distant yet nearby, embracing yet cold, unforgiving. A prayer spoken from another world; the image of luminous specks of life seen in the neon lights of Hong Kong, of a god formed in cracked concrete.

This ever-changing presence can be heard in the album’s many complex moods. There is the religious elation found in the choirs of “Matrimony,” inviting and uplifting even when its harmonies are unsettling through their constant mutation, their ceaseless movement between consonance and dissonance, resolution and suspense. Straight after it comes “This Is Not My Country,” flowing around the listener in a way that is alienating and cold, like revisiting a former home to discover that it’s changed so much that not only can we no longer recognize it, but that it can no longer recognize us. A nostalgia for the known that became the unknown, bearing in itself both happiness and loss.

But this alien, complicated nature of the divine presence is most obvious on the closing title track. Its 20 unrelenting minutes of organ drones never settle for easy resolution, displaying a sort of fear that accompanies any spiritual experience where we come near the divine, its grandiosity too much for our broken forms to bear. The chord progressions of the composition rise and fall, drawing us upward at the same time that the bass mercilessly reminds us of the gravity that this grandeur forces upon us. The beauty here becomes one with the terrible weight of belief, which necessarily accompanies a communion with the unknown, with that which exists outside of us.


The madman who proclaimed the death of god only ever proclaimed the death of our petty idea of god, constructed out of necessity stemming from our limitations, our smallness and undeserved pride, which made us eager to bring the divine to its heel. Can there be any other cathedral than an empty one?

Links: Alex Zhang Hungtai - NON

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