This long-awaited follow up to Malone's 2019 cult masterpiece The Sacrificial Code is an unexpected blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar, as the Stockholm-based composer trades in her now signature pipe organ for "a complex electroacoustic ensemble." While that new approach certainly features an ambitiously expanded instrumental palette (trombone, bass clarinet, boîte à bourdon. sinewave generator, and ARP 2500 synth), Living Torch is still instantly recognizable as Malone's work both stylistically and structurally. Notably, the piece was "commissioned by GRM for its legendary loudspeaker orchestra," which makes a lot of sense in hindsight, as Living Torch sometimes improbably feels like the work of a drone-obsessed medieval organist who somehow managed to get ahold of Sunn O)))'s gear and some ancient battle horns. Given those enhancements, Living Torch can reasonably be described as a more conspicuously doom-inspired release than The Sacrificial Code. Admittedly, that takes this particular album a bit out of my own personal comfort zone, but I love it anyway and remain firm in my belief that Malone is one of the most singular and fascinating composers of her generation.
This piece, which is split into two parts to accommodate the vinyl format, premiered in "complete multichannel form at the Grand Auditorium of Radio France in a concert entirely dedicated to the artist." I imagine it was quite an immersive and amazing performance for those lucky enough to be in attendance, yet I suspect my home-listening experience is but a pale shadow of the intended one, as my sound system falls a bit short of the GRM's Francois Bayle-designed Acousmonium (a "utopia devoted to pure listening"). Given that the loudspeaker orchestra's entire raison d'etre is to facilitate "immersion" and "spatialized polyphony," I cannot think of a more deserving commission recipient than Malone, as few contemporarily composers are more devoted to understanding and maximizing the physics of sound than Malone. In fact, I suspect there is at least one notebook packed with details about how the various frequencies of the shifting sustained tones interact to create a vibrant host of intentional overtones and oscillations. There are a number of other intriguing and cerebral things colliding here as well, as Living Torch draws from "multiple lineages including early modern music, American minimalism, and musique concrète" and also explores "justly tuned harmony," "canonic structures," "the polyphony of unique timbres," "the scaling of dynamic range," and "the revelation of sound qualities." Admittedly, I will just have to take Malone's word for some of that, but I can definitely appreciate the endlessly shifting, slow-motion beauty of the finished piece.
The album's first half opens with the expected foundation of slow-motion drones, throbbing bass tones, and subtly shifting oscillations, but soon heads into terrain that feels like some kind of majestic post-battle elegy from centuries past. As with all Malone releases, however, much of the magic lies in the textures and subtle transformations and how much I get out of the piece depends a lot on how closely I listen to the details. As it unfolds further, the piece gradually blossoms into something like a slowly seething psychedelic cloud or a series of deep cosmic exhalations centered around a quietly flickering and undulating central chord. The album's second half basically picks up right where the first half left off, but the addition of a subtle, minor key bass pattern makes it feel like an especially blackened, slow-motion strain of post-rock. It does not take long before it becomes something more gnarled, seething, and distorted though. While I realize that Malone is originally from Colorado, it is clear that she has been living in Scandinavia long enough for black metal to become part of her DNA, as much of Living Torch's second act evokes a scene akin to black smoke lazily curling over the smoldering remnants of a torched cathedral as the final rays of a blood red sunset fade in the background. Similar to my imagined sunset, many of the drones fade away in the piece's final moment to reveal a tender, hauntingly beautiful closing passage. That last bit provides a satisfying (if understated) pay off, which I very much appreciate, but the entire piece is a sustained illustration of why Kali Malone is so wonderful and singular, as her control, patience, and attention to detail are unparalleled and her vision is uniquely her own. Tentatively, I still think I prefer The Sacrificial Code, but this one seems to be growing on me more with each listen and I am increasingly convinced that Malone is some kind of formidable new half-sorceress/half-architect breed of electroacoustic composer.