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Adam Wiltzie, "Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal"

Eleven Fugues For Sodium PentothalAfter teasingly releasing a pair of soundtracks under his given name, Adam Wiltzie's latest solo album marks a return (of sorts) to the ambient/drone terrain of his beloved former duo with the late Brian McBride (Stars of the Lid). Unsurprisingly, the titular barbiturate/anesthetic deserves some credit for inspiring this shift in direction, as Wiltzie sometimes yearns for a "sacred escape" from the "daily emotional meat grinder of life," but the album also drew inspiration from his recent move to the Flemish countryside and a recurring dream ("if someone listened to the music I created, then they would die"). Based on my own listening experience, I can tentatively say that the album is probably not lethal (outside of dreams, at least) and also that it will presumably delight those Wiltzie fans who have been patiently longing for such a "return to form." That said, Wiltzie's vision is characteristically a bit of an understated one, so the pleasures of Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal tend to be subtle, ephemeral, and sneakily slow-burning ones.


The album opens with quite a varied and impressive four-song run of absolutely sublime, slow-motion beauty beginning with the enigmatically titled "Buried At Westwood Memorial Park, In An Unmarked Grave, To The Left Of Walter Matthau." The piece opens in somewhat unsettling and vaguely menacing fashion with eerie whines and seething ambiance, but soon blossoms into brighter, warmer territory once the strings come in (Wiltzie enhanced his home studio recordings with orchestral recordings made in Budapest at Hungary's former national radio facility). Once all the various elements are properly in place, the piece gradually achieves quite a wonderful strain of slow-motion grandeur that feels akin to a bittersweet sunset. That is admittedly textbook "Stars of the Lid" terrain, but Wiltzie's solo muse rarely lingers anywhere predictable or safe for long: the piece also features a dissolving middle section and a healthy amount of bending, smearing dissonance and tension (though the final section returns to shimmering beauty in a big way). My dark horse favorite on the album is the following "Tissue of Lies," however. Much like the opener, it opens in deceptively predictable fashion, but then an absolutely gorgeous two-chord guitar motif appears to fill the air with lingering ghost trail shimmer before abruptly disintegrating into a slow, hazy fade out (I actually shouted "Noooo!!!!" at my stereo when the transition to a third chord hit).

Notably, "Tissue of Lies" is quite an illustrative example of a sometimes fascinating and sometimes frustrating feature of this album: Wiltzie has a tendency to lull me into a drone-induced reverie before unveiling a killer set piece, but he rarely lingers around after that big reveal. As such, listening to this album feels a lot like seeing fleeting shapes cohere and dissipate in a dream fog: moments of striking beauty are always lurking just around the corner, but these songs only feel fully satisfying if I am completely immersed and attuned to Wiltzie's time-stretched wavelength when those big moments come. Wiltzie is a bit like a prickly veteran magician who is still at the top of his game, but bristles at giving audiences exactly what they want night after night. In keeping with that theme, the following "Pelagic Swell" is a shapeshifting mirage that repeatedly erupts into a wonderful churning string motif that never lingers around for more than 10 or 20 seconds, while the similarly shapeshifting ambient drift of "Stock Horror" unexpectedly culminates in a final perfect minute of gurgling and crackling menace.

The album's second half feels less uniformly strong and surprise-filled to me, but that may be in the ear of the beholder (my personal level of SotL fandom is more "casual" than "intense"). That said, the final two pieces bring the album to close with a pair of fresh highlights. On "We Were Vapourised," a roiling bass throb gradually reveals fleeting glimpses of spacy synth hallucinations, while the final "(Don't Go Back To) Boogerville" closes out the album on an unexpectedly visceral note with a churning and snarling string motif. Regrettably, it only lasts a couple of minutes, which ironically makes me want to go back to Boogerville immediately. For better or worse, that piece is a representative microcosm for the album experience, as Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal is full of great ideas that never stick around long enough to leave a deep impression (aside from the 9-minute "Westwood Memorial Park," every piece is under 5 minutes). Fortunately, it all sounds great (Loop's Robert Hampson did the mixing), so the only real caveat is that this album feels more like a killer sampler platter than a full-on meal. If some of these pieces had been allowed to stretch out and evolve more, I would probably be hailing Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal as a canonical Kranky opus, but it is damn nice to hear Wiltzie working in this vein again regardless.

Listen here.