Bruce Gilbert Oblivio Agitatum

[Editions Mego; 2009]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: dark ambient drone
Others: Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Aphex Twin

Among music enthusiasts, Bruce Gilbert is best known as the guitarist from the seminal post-punk band Wire. Much of the mythology surrounding that group is well-documented; during the late 70s, Wire were known for being restless innovators, markedly shifting style with each subsequent release. They redefined punk’s austerity on their excellent 1977 debut, Pink Flag, moved on to new wave for 1978’s Chairs Missing, then decidedly leaned towards experimental art rock on 1979’s 154. Despite the occasional extended hiatus, the band has continued to morph and expand its sound for three decades now.

Owing to his affinity for avant-garde music, Gilbert often gets credit for Wire’s ever-changing style. Indeed, his work outside the enigmatic band has been equally progressive. The short-lived duo Dome (formed with Wire bassist Graham Lewis) explored electronic minimalism, and beginning with 1984’s This Way, the commissioned dance pieces that Gilbert has released under his own name have each proven more abstract than the last. So, in 2005, when it was announced that Gilbert was leaving Wire, fans simply assumed it was to spend more time following his intransigent muse. In many respects, Oblivio Agitatum’s three compositions find Gilbert doing exactly that.

“Zeros,” the album's centerpiece, clocks in at just over 25 minutes, and, in some ways, it provides a retrospective for the artist’s career. Things open with a sparse drone that gives subtle nods to his main influences, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. From there, Gilbert adds simple layers to achieve an ambient effect similar to work by his most obvious contemporary, Brian Eno. While that seems to cover Gilbert’s past and present, it’s the way he points to his future that makes this piece transcendent. Rather than speeding toward a heated climax, Gilbert continues to allow things to shift and move at a glacial pace. At 63 years old, it’s almost like he’s whispering, “Be patient: the end will get here soon enough.” When things finally resolve, the curtain pulls back and the listener finds that they’ve arrived at some imagined crossroads where Eno’s darker textures meet the beautiful spacious feel of Richard D. James’ early work. It’s profound, even meditative music that definitely rewards repeated listens.

The track is bookended by two shorter pieces, “Oblivio Agitatum” and “Isopyre,” which couch the whole experience without diverting attention away from it: the title track primarily serves to establish the deliberately slow pace and introduce the ominous feel that is pervasive throughout, while “Isopyre” completes the frame, with its notion of funereal rumination reinforcing the album's thesis that “messing with oblivion” is serious business. Together, the three pieces combine to form one long pensive suite that works well as a soundtrack for broader contemplation of universal themes, likened best to a vintner crafting the perfect wine: multiple layers working together in a delicate balance. Some listeners will appreciate the nuance and attention to detail. Others will find themselves waiting for said wine to age.

1. Oblivio Agitatum
2. Zeros
3. Isopyre

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