A Winged Victory For The Sullen Iris

[Erased Tapes; 2017]

Styles: film score, ambient, classical
Others: Francesco Donadelloin, Jalil Lespert, Gareth Malone

The third full-length record by ambient classical duo A Winged Victory For the Sullen is the soundtrack to the French erotic thriller Iris. This as opposed to the other films called Iris: the 1916 British silent romance film, the 1987 Dutch thriller, the 2001 film about the life of British author and philosopher Iris Murdoch (for which both Kate Winslet and Judy Dench were nominated for Academy Awards), and Albert Maysles’s 2014 documentary about eccentric fashion icon Iris Apfel. This Iris, directed by Jalil Lespert and starring Romain Duris and Charlotte Le Bon, is about the kidnapping of the wife of a wealthy Paris banker.

For all the problems with releasing soundtracks as standalone albums, it isn’t enough to frame those problems (as I have been guilty of doing) in terms of “the commodity structure of visuality.” There’s just no way for a humble album review to fully explain what this means, and any attempt is doomed to failure. All we can do is sketch out the problem, which is that the music is intended as a means to an end (the enjoyment of the film), which you then have to abstract from (if you’re listening to the record by itself, you’re not watching the film). The result of this is that the music now serves new ends (whatever it is that you’re looking at or imagining) that do not match up with those the musicians intended.

Whatever we make of this problem — and for some listeners, it won’t be a problem at all — it won’t diminish the quality of the music. Much of the duo’s extracurricular activities have, after all, involved soundtrack work. Of Dustin O’Halloran’s 11 solo releases, 6 have been film scores (Like Crazy, Now is Good, The Beauty Inside, An American Affair, Umrika, and Lion); apart from his collaboration with O’Halloran on the Like Crazy score, Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie has worked on the scores for The Theory of Everything, Arrival, and Solero. It’s safe to say that they know what they are doing, but that can’t save their work on Iris from being pretty but blandly anonymous.

In fact, the story of how Iris was recorded is in many ways more interesting than the music itself. The sessions began with O’Halloran and Wiltzie teamed up in Berlin with their long-time collaborator Francesco Donadelloin to work on the modular synth passages that set Iris apart from their previous output. Following this, the two returned to their own studios, producing music after reflecting on the script, and continued to create music for the score when filming was underway. Eventually, those typical orchestral swells were recorded with a 40-piece string orchestra at Budapest’s Magyar Radio.

Iris is the harshest, coldest thing either of the band’s members has ever had a hand in, captured by the subtly menacing synth sounds on the second half of “Retour au Champs de Mars,” “Gare du Nord, Pt.1,” and “Metro, Pt.3.” It’s quite a contrast to both their 2011 self-titled debut and 2014’s Atomos, where there was always the danger that their achingly pretty string arrangements (still here in abundance on every piece) would at any moment stop being gentle and sad, and slip into mere sentimental mush. The fact that their work has appeared on compilations as diverse as the label Ghostly International’s SMM: Opiate, Café Del Mar Dreams 8, and the Classical Voices EP by British prime-time TV star Gareth Malone (who specializes in the sort of emptily uplifting choir music the public is meant to find inspiring) says it all.

Iris is moody where the band’s earlier work was wistful. Their other albums allow you the space to dream up romantic little reveries, as if you’re standing on a verdant green hillside in mid-March, thinking bittersweetly about the infinite expanse of death, before being caught by a breeze with the echoes of winter and the lingering hopes of spring. Or something like that.

That’s all gone here. The lush orchestration remains, but it’s accompanied in places by anxious synthesizer pulses, and everything is geared toward the creation of a permanent sense of dread. Iris is, after all, a thriller, and that means that if the music isn’t constantly reminding you that something sinister is about to happen (or has already happened), then it isn’t doing its job properly. Ultimately, though, it becomes hard to identify individual tracks without keeping a close eye on the tracklisting as you go.

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