William Basinski: Lamentations review – eerily existing outside time

Familiar though it may be, and reportedly four decades in the making, the avant-garde composer’s sonic palette on this customarily brooding set still manages to induce an emotional, intensely human response like no other

★★★★☆

Experimental ambient auteur William Basinski’s willingness to exhume his earliest recordings has, in the past, produced his most acclaimed work. His masterpiece The Disintegration Loops consisted of four albums of old tape loops he’d recorded back in the 1980s. But the tapes, having been locked away for decades, deteriorated each time they passed the tape head as he tried to digitise them, resulting in the starkly moving, entropic elegies that made up the aural tetraptych; its completion coincided with the September 11 attacks, which Basinski witnessed from his Brooklyn rooftop, imbuing the material with a staggeringly mournful quality.

Not long after The Disintegration Loops came Melancholia and Variations: A Movement in Chrome Primitive, two more records derived from previously existing tapes: the former’s title gave you the heads-up on what lay within – another moving suite of sad instrumentals, essayed on piano – whilst Variations’s collection of experiments leaned further into abstraction. He’s done the same again here on Lamentations, excavating works dating back reportedly as early as 1979. Clearly, the method has been fruitful. All Basinski has to do is tweak the pieces here and there, add a dash of ghostly reverb and he’s finished, which might be what any cynic approaching Lamentations will presumably think. Indeed, at first glance, nothing differentiates it from those aforementioned albums: imperceptible rhythms slower than glaciers, degraded loops drowned out by great smears of reverb, an omnipresent patina of sorrow and grief. Long-term sceptics of avant-garde music might reasonably conclude that everything Basinski does merely sounds the same.

There’s an easy rejoinder to that. Lamentations arrives the same week as AC/DC’s latest album, the warmly received Power Up, a band for whom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is less a credo or motto than their raison d’être; more importantly, their fans and admirers couldn’t give two figs. Why should Basinski be held to a higher standard? Furthermore, Lamentations’s immediate predecessor proves that he goes about the business of reviving old material rather scrupulously. Hymns of Oblivion, never before released, debuted nine months ago, a self-described song cycle from 30 years ago with actual lyrics written by Jennifer Jaffe of the art collective TODT. “It’s dark,” Basinski noted on the album’s Bandcamp page, saying of the collective in question that “they’ve been exploring our dystopian nightmare since the 80s”. He happily attached a link to video footage of the live performances from that period. Dedicated fans were in for a surprise: shirtless with uncombed and unruly hair, a youthful Basinski screamed and howled into a microphone, occasionally sprawled on a wooden throne. You came away nonplussed, although, Basinski himself wryly added they were evidence of his “goth, Lestat phase”.

In truth, the tracks here do a better job of sounding like hymns of oblivion. Whatever he was making 40 years ago appropriately suits the general mood in 2020. We live in an era where Mark Fisher’s theory of a “secret sadness” permeating the 21st century is no longer a secret: pop’s hedonism has lapsed into a brooding anxiety, rappers spending hours of your time telling you that fame doesn’t quiet your inner demons, while artists in the mainstream like Billie Eilish use their platform frequently to warn listeners about the climate emergency. In fact, the graceful 11-minute anti-lullaby All These Too, I, I Love pops and cracks and wavers just like the sombre epics on The Disintegration Loops, but, while it slowly, engrossingly decays, it evokes prickling fears of end times, perhaps through the potential decay of the planet’s own ecosystem if nothing is done about the climate emergency, something poignantly conjured up on the sobering closer Fin. More curiously, All These Too, I, I Love contains extracts of an opera singer’s wailing tones, a sound you might not have heard in abundance on Basinski’s other albums, but which you find dotted about Lamentations, particularly on O, My Daughter, O, My Sorrow and during Please, This Shit Has Got to Stop’s majestic, dark-matter waltz.

These are new, distinguishing features of Basinski’s work, even if searching for them almost amounts to looking for distinguishing features in the later works of painter Mark Rothko. If nothing else, Lamentations’s sonic unity allows you to focus on each track’s composition – audibly, a lot of care and effort has gone into them. There’s a growing bassy noise that lives just beneath The Wheel of Fortune’s spiralling, string-laden drift which never quite overwhelms the track, always receding into a void or kept at bay, as if fighting the tussle of unmoored, conflicted emotions lying deep in its core. Meanwhile, on Passio, that bassy growl reappears, rumbling like a gathering storm, eating away more and more chunks of implicit melody. Tear Vial tentatively hints at a beat, a muffled thump not unlike a distorted 909 kick submerged under layers of echo, the only element anchoring the yawning swells of warped piano; eventually, it fades altogether, like the residue of a memory reappearing in hiccuping cycles.

Paying attention to the process behind the album isn’t particularly rewarding, of course. It’d be nothing if there was no genuine feeling here. Everything, however, makes a sincere emotional impact, be it darkly forbidding, as on the spectral nightmare Punch and Judy, or slightly wistful: you yearn to hear more of Paradise Lost’s brief seasick drone, which appears to have been snatched from the shoegaze maelstrom of a My Bloody Valentine track. With a bleak soundscape to match, Silent Spring’s title references the famous 1962 book by conservationist Rachel Carson about the dangerous use of pesticides. It astonishingly sounds like a progression from last year’s On Time Out of Time, despite being constructed from work made years ago. To be honest, Silent Spring would have been a powerful piece of music in any era. You’d easily say the same about Lamentations as a whole, something eerily and affectingly timeless about it.

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