The way in which sound occupies space is the primary concern of Australian composer Lawrence English. The Brisbane-based musician’s back-catalogue of soundscapes relates to the personal and the universal in equal measure, and his approach to arranging such sounds transcends the confines of conventional musical concepts, with the artist jokingly referring to his work as “post-everything”. What’s more, English’s music has routinely conveyed concepts of political philosophy, with the title of his latest project, Cruel Optimism, being lifted from a Lauren Berlant book of the same name, in which the author tackles the argued unwarranted enthusiasm engendered by postwar liberal capitalism in the United States and Europe, creating societies of people desperately attempting to realise the dream of “the good life” through means that are ultimately forlorn. Despite having worked as a recording artist since the early 2000s, it wasn’t until English’s previous release, Wilderness of Mirrors, that the composer became a talking-point amongst mainstream music critics, and the meditative collectedness with which he approached creating his sound collages was met with universal acclaim amongst those who were willing to listen. As a result, Cruel Optimism proved to be his most highly anticipated project yet, purely based on the fact that, despite making music for quite some time, English was still a new discovery for many in the music world. The end product, in keeping with the themes evoked by its title, displays a distinctly more fragile sound than that featured on Wilderness of Mirrors, reflecting the issues of power relations conveyed by the project’s overarching concept. Indeed, many of the emotions aroused by this record come close to mental trauma and suffering, and the record establishes a dark, but equally wistful, hue to it. Ultimately, Cruel Optimism furthers English’s obsessive explorations of sound and the ways in which it can be shaped, which is always fascinating to experience.
With Cruel Optimism being a project concerning fear, it seems that the listener is immersed in medias res from the very beginning, with the opening piece, Hard Rain, abruptly bursting in like a sudden downpour. The composition progresses with the subtlety one could expect from a minimalist drone record, especially one from Lawrence English, but nevertheless, the mood of the piece ebbs and flows between chaos and an odd sense of calm, despite the fact that the crashing soundscape floods over the listener with an impressive force throughout its five and a half minute runtime. The swelling electronic embellishments decorate the piece effectively, whilst the haunting drone carries the main body of the composition, rooting Hard Rain in a strong foundation that provides for one of the highlights of the record. It must be mentioned that English employs outside help on Cruel Optimism, a bold move that surprised me, given the composer’s clear passion for experimenting with noise under his own personal musical philosophies. Hard Rain not only boasts a contribution from Austrian songwriter Heinz Riegler, but the track also features a recurring collaborator on Cruel Optimism that piqued my interest for the project before hearing it, that being Thor Harris. Harris was the drummer for post-rock legends Swans between 2010-2016, contributing to the band’s final four albums, which included some of their best, most notably To Be Kind and The Glowing Man. Harris is certainly a fitting feature for Cruel Optimism, with much of Swans’ work evoking many of the emotions that English is toying with on this record. What’s more, Swans’ recent material has displayed a midpoint between crushing calamity and enthralling hypnotism, and Hard Rain, despite the obvious musical differences, engenders a similar fervour. This is, however, until the piece bleeds into the next track, The Quietest Shore, by which time the textural intricacies of the previous cut have seen the tumult give way to the kind of serenity that is alluded to in the track’s title. The Quietest Shore is most certainly a felicitous successor to Hard Rain, and the pieces’ titles were undoubtedly intended to elicit visions of a turbulent storm at sea in which the listener suddenly finds themselves caught, until they finally find refuge on a nearby island. Interestingly, I cannot help but notice the similarities between these two opening compositions and William Shakespeare’s last solo play, The Tempest. The first act of this tragicomedy, like Hard Rain, opens in medias res, in the eye of a violent storm raging around a small ship. Chaos ensues as the Boatswain and the ship’s mariners scramble about on deck, whilst the noblemen aboard the vessel are causing trouble before taking refuge below-decks. The second scene, however, takes place on shore from the perspective of Prospero, the sorcerer who conjured the tempest, with the help of his enslaved sprite, Ariel. Whether or not English was somewhat influenced by The Tempest, I do not know, but the resemblance is uncanny, with even the mystical, dreamy quality of The Quietest Shore mimicking the sprite’s wistful movements.
Hammering a Screw stands out in the tracklisting as a result of how telling its title is. This piece is as abrasive as one might expect, but the imagery runs deeper than just this. Each crushing blow of the electronic clanging rings like a hammer hit, and the vibrations are left to linger as the listener waits in nervous anticipation for the next chime. Once again, this piece spills over into the next cut, Crow, and the last crash is dealt here, with the ensuing swirls of ambience being the aftermath, until the mood, once again, drifts away into a sense of calm and composure. The dying breath of Crow entices the listener into perhaps the spookiest piece on Cruel Optimism, as one might assume from the title, Requiem for a Reaper / Pillar of Cloud. Indeed, the embodiment of death itself referenced in the title materialises in the composition, albeit in a more ghostly form. The distant, lingering, droning vocal can be described in a word; haunting. This is a word that I use a lot when discussing music, but this is perhaps the time at which no other word in the English language could be used in its place. The deathly connotations continue, with the sheens of sudden electronics sounding similar to the swinging of a scythe. As a result, I can’t help but feel that the tranquility that follows is the victim’s (or perhaps the listener’s) transition to the afterlife. Indeed, the themes on Cruel Optimism are most definitely bleak, to say the least, but that’s not to say that the swirling drones don’t sometimes convey a peacefulness that one might not expect from a project concerning political and economic disaster.
Ultimately, Cruel Optimism, whilst not English’s most groundbreaking or defining work, continues the case for the composer’s exploration of captivating, bizarre and creepy soundscapes, with this project communicating a varied array of emotions all contained within a storm of swirling static and pulsating electronics. In terms of the political message English was trying to convey, however, I am doubtful as to how successful this was. Of course, attempting to make a political statement solely through the use of minimalist drone pieces is admirably ambitious, but this vision is arguably not fully actualised. Whilst the darker and more intense moments on the record — of which there are many — clearly reflect the mental hardships of the world described in Berlant’s book, I’m unsure as to where the more gentle passages, particularly on The Quietest Shore, fit into this worldview. Nevertheless, Cruel Optimism is an impressive and bewitching art piece regardless of its philosophy, plus many of the moods that it channels are as intense and unsettling as English likely intended, and certainly evoke images of an industrial dystopia at times. All in all, I am as enthralled as ever by the sound collages of Lawrence English and I’m sure Cruel Optimism will capture the imaginations of all those who are similarly fascinated by the effects of sound.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10