Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, October 1st, 2014
Wavering in shadows between sonic light and dark, Wilderness of Mirrors evokes both growth and decay. Unfolding like a flower, its beauty reaches into transcendence, immersing and comforting the listener. At the same time, this unfolding is also the movement towards deterioration. Brisbane-based Lawrence English presents a finely crafted album that seems to emerge from a dialectic tension between reverberant unraveling and tightly gripped labyrinthine coilings.
Like watching two images overlaid – one, the super speeded-up life cycle of nature, the other, a slow motion vision of a solar flare – Wilderness of Mirrors is an album of woven, immersive, interlinked electronic soundscapes. Evolution through repetition is the methodology and English draws on a cosmically broad palette of tones and shades. While very few of his sounds are identifiable as conventional instruments, this doesn’t mean the music sounds machinic: rather, organic textures, both warm and cold, render wide expanses of flickering sound space. Sometimes these territories are populated by haunted melodies, riding on waves of feedback. Subterranean drones underpin most tracks. Rhythms emerge from rippling undulations of sound. If broad spaces and clear horizons are evoked by this music – perhaps an impression I have from seeing a performance by English where he was accompanied by minimalist projections of clear blue skies – the album can just as easily be heard as deeply rooted and spectrally dense. Tension and release is a feature, although it is felt on a timescale measured in minutes and across tracks.
Taking its title from the poem “Gerontion” by T.S Eliot, where the line “wilderness of mirrors” relates to the battle of miscommunication waged by opposing state intelligence agencies during the cold war, the album title sums up English’s compositional approach. Explaining this process, English states, “Buried in each final piece, like an unheard whisper, is a singularity that was slowly reflected back upon itself in a flood of compositional feedback. Erasure through auditory burial.”
First track The Liquid Casket is highly focused, evolving at an almost imperceptible rate. It transforms into the title track, which acts as a kind of unwinding of the energy built up in the opening. Guillotines and Kingmakers seems to burn in the afterglow of the first two tracks, but at two minutes in length, it feels like a brief interlude, which is, I think, considerate of English: the listener is given space to breath. In the last 30 seconds of Guillotines a shaking, highly distorted figure emerges, building momentum into Another Body, where it is fully realised. It’s often hard to pull apart the different layers of sound, unless, like in this track, the levels are stripped back quite suddenly, leaving the listener feeling sonically forsaken for a few minutes; whereas just before we are held aloft by a vast cloud of sounds, now only a lone strand remains.
Forgiving Noir marks a shift in direction, its pulsating mass of filtered bass drones and whirring mid-level tones creating the most pendulous composition on the album. This is in many ways the centerpiece of Wilderness of Mirrors, both in terms of musical activity and overall length. Two minutes in and the listener is again left feeling unsupported, before harsh-toned organ sounds build and return, shadowed by what sounds like a vale of underwater panpipes. The track evokes Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians thanks to its more distinctly articulated sound world: we could almost be listening to clarinets and pianos, albeit highly processed manifestations of these instruments. In the last track Hapless Gatherer the final few minutes feature a melodic sublimity reminiscent of Arvo Part’s Cantus for Benjamin Britten (1976).
I found that the louder one listens, the more immersive and complex the album becomes. English says that he was influenced by seeing performances by Earth, Swans and My Blood Valentine, all highly skilled in the use of volume “as an affecting quality” – English says “each of them reinforced my interest in emulating that inner ear and bodily sensation that extreme densities of vibration in air brings about.” “Sound mass” composers like Gyorgy Ligeti and Krysztof Penderecki make as much musical sense of this music as English’s more obvious contemporaries, like Christian Fennesz and Belong. The solid nature of the album, the way it is connected between tracks, gives the impression of a slab or block of sound: English is the sculptor, carving away layers to reveal a textual beauty.