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Ian William Craig, "Thresholder"

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cover imageThis latest slice of heaven from Ian William Craig has quite a curious provenance, as it was assembled from orphaned pieces dating all the way back to 2014's landmark A Turn of Breath.  As such, it is not exactly the proper follow-up to Centres, yet it is every bit as great as I would expect such an album to be.  Notably, Thresholder is far from a collection of disconnected outtakes and middling material, as the pieces are all roughly tied to a commission work relating to quantum physics and space.  As befits such an inspiration, Thresholder very much focuses on Craig's more experimental and abstract side, unfolding as a hallucinatory and dreamlike collage of woozily swooning angelic vocals in a crackling sea of distressed tape loops and hiss.  If Centres is the album where Craig's gift for songcraft came into full bloom, this is the companion piece that illustrates the full depth of his textural and production brilliance.

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The opening "Elided" is a quietly simmering and lovely statement of intent, as Craig's beautiful voice wordlessly floats across a faintly hissing and shimmering void, leaving a spectral, fluttering, and shivering afterimage in its wake.  Much like the other ten pieces on Thresholder, it does not quite fall into ambient or drone territory.  Instead, it is something else entirely, as the ghost of a structured song remains at the piece's core despite the textural ravaging that it has undergone.  That ingenious approach to abstract/experimental music is central to why Thresholder manages to be such a coherent and gorgeous album, despite being fragmented and partially dictated by the unpredictable whims of scratchy and wobbling tapes.  I am sure Craig did not actually destroy any fully formed songs for this release, but there are enough corroded hooks and recurring themes burbling out of the hissing fantasia to evoke the illusion of a heavenly "pop" album straining to penetrate the pleasant fog of half-sleep.  Unsurprisingly, the most memorable moments are those in which the melodies penetrate that fog the deepest.  As such, the album's centerpiece is "Some Absolute Means," which builds to a glorious crescendo of rich organ chords, insistently repeating tape loops, and intertwining vocal harmonies that feels like a kindred spirit to A Turn of Breath's "A Slight Grip, A Gentle Hold" suite.  Later, "And Therefore The Moonlight" feels like a languorous and understated coda to that piece, sneakily providing one of the album’s most striking passages, as a fragile and warbling loop of Craig's voice is left behind in the song's wake as everything else disappears.  It then impressively segues into still another great piece, the lush, sacred-sounding chorale "The Last Westbrook Lament."

While those are the pieces that stand out as obvious highlights, the true beauty of Thresholder lies in how all of the individual pieces bleed into one another to form a sublime and mesmerizing whole.  There is nothing weak or indulgent to be found on this album, as Craig was every bit as rigorous with his editing as he would have been with an album of actual songs.  The only real difference between the obvious gems and the less obvious ones is where Craig puts his focus: with pieces like "The Last Westbrook Lament," there is an immediately gratifying melody, while a piece like the closing "More Words for Mistake" takes a bit more time to appreciate (a ghostly, melancholy melody slowly creeps out of a skipping, popping, and gasping squall of tape noise).  A piece like "TC-377 Poem," on the other hand, strikes a perfect balance between conventional beauty and experimentation, as snatches of fragmented vocal melody pile up on one another and fall apart amidst a gnarled and stuttering roar of ravaged tapes.  At other points, Craig explores some non-tape avenues of achieving his smudged and obscured dreamlike beauty.  The most significant such divergences are the very different halves of the two-part "Idea for Contradiction."  In the first part, Craig sang a simple and lovely melody in an underground cistern in Gothenburg and let the cavernous natural reverb works its magic.  On "Idea for Contradiction 2," however, Craig goes the opposite route and gradually engulfs and corrodes his vocals with a roiling sea of distortion.

I cannot say that I did not expect Thresholder to be an excellent album, as all of Craig's recent major releases have been stellar, but I was a bit surprised by how it feels like an inspired throwback to his early work.  Instead of a regression from his more vocal-centric fare, this album feels like Craig decided to revisit and perfect his earlier aesthetic with benefit of being considerably more evolved in every single aspect of his artistry.  Given that I quite enjoy much of Craig's comparatively uneven early output, that move absolutely delights me, as Thresholder feels like the definitive statement of Craig's gorgeously warm and seething soundscape side.  In fact, this album lies somewhere between a more intimate and human incarnation of Cloudmarks and a version of A Turn of Breath that passed through additional layers of tape decay until it was just the ghostly essence of its former self.  Given Thresholder's more pronounced experimental tendencies, it likely will not find as wide an audience as Centres or Breath, but it should, as it is every bit on the same level as those classics.  At this point in his career, references to similar artists like William Basinski no longer have a place in any discussion of Craig's work, as there no longer are any similar artists: the beauty that Craig creates with his voice and his tapes is very much a singular one.

Samples can be found here.
Last Updated on Sunday, 11 November 2018 13:11  


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