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Emptyset, "Blossoms"

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cover imageNo one can predict which trends or innovations will shape or define the experimental music of the future, but Emptyset's latest bombshell certainly feels like a gloriously bracing vision of one possible path: Blossoms is an album "generated entirely from the output of a neural network-based artificial intelligence system."  While the duo of James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas has always been extremely forward-thinking and experimentally minded, this is the first Emptyset album where it seems like the pair has actually leapt several years ahead of everyone else rather than merely taking existing ideas to unexpected (and sometimes fascinating) extremes.  That said, Blossoms is also a culmination of the same themes that have obsessed Emptyset for years, as the source material comes from recent acoustic improvisations with materials like wood and metal as well as their backlog of more architecturally inspired recordings (though it all ultimately emerges in radically unrecognizable form).  At its best, Blossoms sounds like little else that I have ever heard, evoking a kind of visceral, shape-shifting sci-fi nightmare.

Thrill Jockey

Imagine, if you will, a world in which the Transformers are not a ham-fisted and painfully stupid big-budget movie franchise but are instead both very real and very terrifying.  And that, rather than morphing into childish nonsense like boomboxes or trucks, they instead transform into amorphous and phantasmagoric Lovecraftian horrors made from liquid mercury.  On pieces like the grinding and churning "Bloom," Blossoms evokes exactly what I would expect such a half-organic/half-mechanized abomination to sound like.  Then it goes one step further and seems to also warp and stretch both time and the fabric of reality.  Needless to say, that is quite an impressive feat indeed, though it is not one that the artificial intelligence system can claim full credit for: the way the sounds unfold and interact is indeed gloriously radical and inhuman, but the seismic, world-shaking power is entirely due to the sound design wizardry of Ginzburg and Purgas.  The importance of the latter cannot be understated, as composing an album in such a fashion has some significant limitations (much like those of chromatic, atonal, or noise music).  Blossoms is an album that demands to be played loudly, as the sheer shuddering, explosive power makes the lack of conventional melodies, harmonies, or compositional arcs feel largely irrelevant.  There are occasionally some moments where this album achieves a kind of alien beauty as well, but the more pervasive achievement is that it resembles some kind of massive metal organism in a constant state of awe-inspiring structural transformation.

That said, Emptyset's AI is far from a one-trick pony–it just happens to be exceptionally gifted at executing dazzling textural and dynamic feats, so those are the ones that initially stand out the most.  In the opening "Petal," for example, the grinding and squirming cybernetic onslaught provides a framework for a fluttering melodic fragment at the piece’s heart.  The weirdly lovely "Pollen" returns to that same theme with even greater success, as its lilting and wilting snatch of melody feels simultaneously tender and encased in a prickly exoskeleton.  The other highlights head in significantly divergent paths though.  For example, "Blade" feels like a warm and quietly lovely drone piece adrift on heavy swells of buzzing metallic shimmer, while "Axil" eschews any warmth at all to converge into a lurching and shuffling groove that unpredictably collapses and reforms as it moves relentlessly forward.  My favorite piece, however, is probably "Stem," which slowly takes shape from deep subterranean throbs, then unexpectedly erupts into something that resembles a hallucinatory and time-stretched dance party for immense, wounded machines. 

The closing "Clone" is a noteworthy piece as well, simultaneously illustrating both Blossoms' violent, unpredictable appeal and the one weakness that keeps Emptyset from quite becoming one of my favorite projects.  The piece begins as a pulsing organ-like chord that gets ingeniously stretched, distended, and deconstructed for a brief and wonderful passage, yet everything is quickly consumed by a massive cosmic buzz saw that grinds and obliterates all other sound.  It has such a promising start, but it is summarily destroyed rather than being allowed to evolve into something more.  That has always been the rub for Emptyset: great ideas are regularly executed with brutal force and clarity, but their aesthetic begins and ends there.  There are generally not "songs" or satisfying compositional arcs on Emptyset albums, just cool experimental vamps that appear and simply run their course for a few minutes before making way for the next piece.  Admittedly, much of that is due to conceptual- or gear-related constraints, but that does not make it any less of a real and valid issue.  Fortunately, Purgas and Ginzburg have found an ingenious way to transcend that shortcoming on Blossoms: just ratchet up the wonder and the elemental power until everything else is eclipsed.  It feels weird to describe a solution that involved eighteen months of work with "an international network of programmers working at the cutting edge of sound synthesis" as a blunt solution to a complex problem, but the intricacy of the process ultimately resulted in a legitimately volcanic outcome.  And a legitimately effective one.  Blossoms is unquestionably a significant and bold leap forward in sound art, but it is equally remarkable in how it transforms the meticulous and the cerebral into something downright apocalyptic.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 06:50  


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