Few current artists are as consistent and reliably absorbing as William Basinski, as he has carved a wonderful career out of conjuring work of hypnotic beauty from simple, well-chosen snippets from his backlog of decaying tapes. It is not nearly as simple a formula as it sounds, but Basinski always manages to make it look effortless anyway. Recently, however, he seems to have become a bit restless with that aesthetic, as he transformed the more traditionally Basinski-esque The Cascade into The Deluge with the aid of some feedback loops of varying lengths. A Shadow in Time is an even more radical leap forward, as the title piece feels like a pile-up of blurred tape loops woven into a vibrantly shifting composition. The other piece, Basinski's gorgeous tribute to David Bowie, is admittedly a bit less adventurous in structure, but is not devoid of unexpected twists either.
The opening "A Shadow in Time" does not waste any time at all in establishing that Basinski has some new ideas to share, as the murkily pulsing synth drones are quickly embellished with a series of very composed-sounding swells of ghostly sounding feedback or harmonics. Also, the underlying drones gradually accumulate additional layers, additional density, and some subtly dissonant and grinding metallic textures, so it is almost instantly impossible to tell how many loops are involved, how long they are, and how much of the piece is not culled from loops at all. If Basinski played anything in real-time (and it seems he did), he certainly did an admirable job in making it sound every bit as gauzy and distressed as his old tapes. Also of note: the piece feels quite a bit more amorphous than a lot of Basinski’s work, as there is no immediately graspable melody or satisfying chord progression amidst the swirling ocean of drones and tape hiss. Normally, a conspicuous lack of structure or hooks would be a bad thing, but "Shadow" actually represents a bold step forward compositionally, as the harsher, grinding textures give the piece an ominous sense of menace to hold my attention while a dark and shifting undercurrent sneakily takes form. As such, it is definitely not one of Basinski's more immediately gratifying pieces, but it gradually revealed itself to be quite subtle, heavy, and ingenious once I listened to it enough for everything to fully sink in. While the comparatively placid fade-out perhaps overstays its welcome a bit, the best parts of "Shadow" feel like a sinister black cloud billowing up through a deceptively calm sea.
"For David Robert Jones" on the other hand, initially feels like business as usual, as a warm and dreamlike loop endlessly repeats with minimal embellishment. In fact, it is not unlike the gorgeous melancholy of Basinski's classic 92982 album, resembling a blurred and gently hallucinatory choral mass. That is probably the side of Basinski's artistry that I love the best, but "For David Robert Jones" unexpectedly develops into something a bit more than a heavenly, “locked groove” elegy, as something that sounds like a tape-distressed saxophone hook erupts from the bliss-fog about a third of the way through the piece. The delayed introduction of a bold new motif is not a common Basinski trope at all, so it makes for a comparatively vibrant splash of color and nicely deepens the emotional richness of the piece. While that turns out to be the final significant surprise that Basinski has up his sleeve for the album, he makes the interesting choice of juxtaposing the beginning of that hook with a repeating wrong-sounding note. Weirdly, that one sour note is what elevates the piece into something truly special for me, as a slightly curdled version of lush melancholia is considerably more intriguing and mysterious than pure sonic heaven with no sharp edges to watch out for.
As an album, A Shadow in Time has a lot going for it and certainly claims a place among Basinski's stronger releases. First and foremost, "For David Robert Jones" is easily one of the most beautiful pieces that he has ever recorded. The title piece is not quite on the same level, but it is no less significant. While my deep appreciation for William Basinski's work is well-documented, it is not an unconditional love–he can only explore variations of familiar themes so many times before they start to yield diminishing returns for me (and presumably for him as well), so it is encouraging to see a promising step in a different direction. I have no idea if "A Shadow in Time" represents the way forward for Basinski, but I am definitely eager to see where it leads. In the meantime, it is refreshing to hear something outside the norm and an unexpected treat to see Basinski in more overt "composer" mode. Given that his treasure trove of damaged tapes turned out to be such career-defining, once-in-a-lifetime lightning bolt of inspiration, it is far too easy to forget that Basinski is more than someone with limitless patience and a golden ear: he was a gifted musician and composer long before The Disintegration Loops changed everything for him and that person has not gone anywhere.