A real sculptor of sound is William Basinski, and I have long been enamoured by his work. The feelings that consume me when listening to some of his material are often so hard to describe that I worry that reviewing a full-length project of his may prove rather difficult. His magnum opus, The Disintegration Loops, is a modern masterpiece in avant-garde and ambient music. A project divided into four volumes, the sounds across these albums are produced by Basinski’s attempt to transfer some old recordings on magnetic tape of his into a digital format. However, the tapes were in such poor condition upon his rediscovering of them that, when played on the tape loop, they gradually deteriorate as they pass by the tape head. The result is a sound that ever so slowly begins to crumble and die in the listener’s ears, with each loop bringing further destruction to the tapes and increased cracking and excess noise in the music; a rather bittersweet concept, as the music becomes more enthralling as it dies. These albums feature some of the most haunting, desolate and chilling soundscapes I’ve ever heard. The music is made even more eerie as a result of the recording’s coincidence with the September 11 attacks, with the album artwork depicting the New York City skyline with smoke rising from ground zero. The Disintegration Loops has come to be closely associated with the 9/11 attacks, with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art performing a live orchestration of music from the album on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy. Indeed, as should be clear, Basinski’s work has made its mark in the history of experimental music, but his material outside of his seminal four volume project is seldom spoken about with as much dedication. Whilst I agree that The Disintegration Loops deserves the attention it has received since its release, Basinski has a lot more to offer than just that project, and this he proves on A Shadow in Time.
Basinski’s latest project contains two pieces, both clocking in at around 20 minutes in length. The first of these two pieces, For David Robert Jones, is, as the title suggests, Basinski’s tribute to the late David Bowie and inspired by Subterraneans, the closing track from the singer’s seminal 1977 album Low. Like the music that featured on his magnum opus, Basinski once again uses old deteriorated tapes to mould this piece, much more prominently than on much else of his recent material, making me feel that this was perhaps a deliberate choice in relation to the track’s topic. After all, given that this piece is in memoriam of a deceased legend, the very concept of using gradually deteriorating tapes as the basis for this composition feels like a rather stark metaphor and only adds to the haunting nature of the track, which is to be expected of Basinski by this point. However, I must say that ‘haunting’ isn’t an entirely fitting way to describe this track. The foundation of the piece is based on tape loops so decrepit that they are beyond recognition, but the resulting sounds are best described as angelic. I cannot help but picture some sort of choir performing in the clouds when hearing the final breaths of these dying tapes. These otherworldly whispers are eventually joined by a recording of Basinski playing the tenor saxophone, although it is edited as to sound somewhat decrepit as well. The influence from Subterraneans really shows here, as Bowie’s songs features some distant jazz saxophones also. Much like Basinski on For David Robert Jones, Subterraneans was also composed in memory of something, that being in memory of the despair suffered by those in East Berlin at the time of the Cold War. Whilst a chilling song in its own right, Subterraneans nonetheless retains a somewhat different complexion from For David Robert Jones. For a start, whilst the former progresses as a composition in a perfectly noticeable manner, the latter is less obvious. Basinski’s piece certainly does change, but so subtly that if one were not giving it one’s full attention, it may seem as if it is remaining completely stagnant. Perhaps this is some statement of Basinski’s, that the complex secrets of this piece are only to be unlocked by those who give it the time to properly understand it. But then again, there always has been a distinct air of mystery when it comes to Basinski’s art, so perhaps it’s better that we don’t fully understand what statement is trying to be made.
The title track, A Shadow in Time, is this project’s second and final composition, and has a subtlety to it that exceeds that of its predecessor. Moreover, like For David Robert Jones, there is a celestial quality to the sounds it yields. It takes the form of a more conventional drone piece, yet still has a distinct Basinski trademark to it, despite being largely a product of a polyphonic synthesizer rather than tape loops. The journeys of the old Voyetra-8 synthesizer throughout this piece feel free, immeasurable, perhaps even without any limit whatsoever, which all feels comfortably in keeping with the already-established transcendental wonder of the composition. This seemingly ceaseless potential of the synthesizers is, however, brought back to Earth by the harsh but subtle dissonance created by the tapes on this piece. This results in another dichotomous emotional experience on A Shadow in Time. Just as For David Robert Jones featured a clear juxtaposition between the heavenly tape loops and the dark, distorted saxophone cuts, A Shadow in Time features a similar dichotomy which largely exists between the Voyetra-8 and the tape loops. At times, it feels like the two are competing for complete control over the composition, whereas at other points, they seem oddly harmonious. The result is one of the most intriguingly beautiful works of Basinski’s, and it seems to be made more beautiful by the lack of understanding the listener has of the piece.
Like all of Basinski’s work to date, A Shadow in Time seems to transcend the confines of time and feels far shorter than its 43 minute runtime. I must admit that even writing this review has flown by far quicker than I would have expected. Typically, when I review albums, I make a page of notes as I listen to the material and then sit down and write the review separately. For this album, however, I had the music on as I was writing, because I found that I can only just about find the words to describe the sounds on these two pieces for the time that I am hearing them, and as soon as they end, they feel like a faint memory. Perhaps that explains why the album drifts by so quickly. Nonetheless, this album is an absolute essential release for experimental music this year, and is perhaps Basinski’s most significant work since his magnum opus.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10