City & i.o Spirit Volume

[PTP; 2019]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: ancient lyre, prog metal, post-Modern Jester
Others: Aaron Dilloway, Zach Hill, Michael Levy

Save for their home province (British Columbia) and their equally un-Googleable names, there’s little overlap between solo artists City and i.o, whose first collab marks the pair’s debut effort on PTP.

i.o treats the EP format like drip cloths in an action painter’s studio, revelling in his oeuvre without paying much mind to its individual installments. The tracks are lengthy — often clocking out at the 20-minute mark — and uniformly dense, composed of never-ending drum fills and meandering guitaristry that rarely slow down or transcend their labyrinth of brute improvisation. It’s intensely cerebral stuff: all headspace, as if Ornette Coleman sat in on a post-hardcore outfit’s practice session.

City’s discography is no less jarring, but his industrial synthscapes are confined to recognizable structures: metal-inspired crescendos, cinematic slabs of fight-scene tech-noir, and lumbering club deconstructions that feel right at home on the PTP imprint.

A careful reassembly of the duo’s collective strengths would work well on paper. Admittedly, I imagined i.o’s maximalist percussion underlying trancey synth leads as I downloaded my advanced copy of Spirit Volume. To my surprise, though, the pair’s signature sounds rarely surface in recognizable forms. Instead, this particular fusion dance results in ominous sludge resembling the carbon left behind in a tin of burnt sugar. Chunky pulses of bass slowly pull listeners through hovering drones and slap-chopped drums. Seatbelted into the wubs, there’s nowhere to go but up, in perpetuity — coaster tracks clacking, no hillcrest in sight.

Spirit Volume’s strongest moments are its tracks that derive the least from either artist’s formula. I’m particularly fond of “Markerlight,” in which a stringed instrument that resembles an ancient Greek lyre creeps through a lattice of cymbal splashes and the cochlea-tickling sound of scrap metal. I can’t help but place myself at a crafting bench in a fantasy RPG, failing to put various ores to practical use.

The spacier middle portion of the album also reminds me of the crusty noise tapes churned out by Hanson Records in the late-aughts, caked in grime and proto-ASMR crackles. “Fatal Flower” presents a tropical take on the sound, navigating a forest of wet, unspooled tape that leads to an eventual clearing. Warm drones flood the empty space, before giving way to a faint piano piece soaked in sweat.

The record’s more rhythmic compositions yield mixed results. “Bitter,” a sluggish beat built of little more than low-end and siren-like synths, sways limply, while “Anxiety Object” succeeds at evoking black metal and breakcore, as the duo conjures the noise of two-dozen arcade cabinets malfunctioning at once.

Throwing unnerving sounds and daring ideas at a wall and succeeding at getting most of them to stick, i.o and City have produced something closer to a scrappy mixtape than a formal LP. Think Drip Season or Tha Tour, Pt. 1, only more… well… industrial. What’s lacking in cohesion is more than made up for in seamless chemistry. The two work so well as a unit that Spirit Volume is, above all, a case to study each artist’s back catalogue in order to pick out their individual contributions. For an album recorded long-distance, it’s brimming with intimacy.

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