A Winged Victory for the Sullen

Sunday, 11 September 2011 13:03 Stephen Bush Reviews - Albums and Singles
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cover imageAs most listeners turn to low-quality downloads, online streaming, iPod earbuds, and cheap computer speakers, a handful of record labels seem to truly care about the sound quality of their new releases. Kranky is a label that cares, and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, in particular, lives up to its legend. Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O'Halloran recorded the album primarily in Berlin on a couple incredibly fancy, 9-foot grand pianos in large acoustic spaces; added strings and horns; mixed the record in a 17th century villa in Italy; and processed the songs all analogue, straight to magnetic tape. It sounds incredible.

Kranky

A Winged Victory for the Sullen - A Winged Victory for the Sullen

Back in 2008, on the heels of Stars of the Lid's masterwork, And Their Refinement of the Decline, my wife and I saw Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride in concert in their hometown of Austin. The guys played at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a beloved (and slightly bizarre) movie theater that serves microbrews and a full dinner menu to accompany classic and contemporary films, horror and sci-fi film festivals, quote-alongs, sing-alongs, and the inimitable Air Sex World Championships.

At first, I was unsure the booking was a good fit for Stars of the Lid's hushed, drifting music. When the show commenced, though, it was obvious the Drafthouse was chosen for at least two reasons. First, its acoustics: the Stars' lush, ambient dream/drone-scapes are nothing if not epic, widescreen, cinematic—in other words, a natural fit for a theater setting. Second, its visuals: regular collaborator Luke Savisky provided a variety of abstract projections that complemented the music for those who stayed awake.

All of which is to say that Adam Wiltzie has learned a thing or two from playing in cinematic settings. His newest project, a collaborative effort with American pianist and composer Dustin O'Halloran, is like hearing Stars of the Lid in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. It plays as a magnificent, fully realized album, in the same way that fellow Stars member Brian McBride let loose his creative reins on The Effective Disconnect last year. Both projects are a step back from the more austere, immersive nature of And Their Refinement of the Decline—though A Winged Victory for the Sullen seems less definitive by contrast, the trade-off is in its brevity, melodicism and accessibility.

The natural parallel to A Winged Victory is Wiltzie's other major work without McBride—2004's The Dead Texan, a collaborative album and visual project with filmmaker Christina Vantzou. In hindsight, Wiltzie's work under that title seems unfocused—sure, it utilizes a diverse palette of strings, piano, and thick smears of ambient guitar, but it never quite captures a sound the way Stars of the Lid often do. With that project, he had Vantzou—a visual artist, not a musician—as his collaborator, and her influence on the music seemed unclear. By contrast, O'Halloran provides a great deal of structure to A Winged Victory; his piano reflects off Wiltzie's sighing drones the same way the moon's glow reflects off the ground after a light rain. O'Halloran's modern classical playing provides melody and structure, a fresh counterpoint to Wiltzie's recognizable style.

There are other guests, and instruments, that accent the record. Notably, Icelandic cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and violinist Peter Broderick both contribute, adding a plaintive coda to "Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears," and orchestral flourishes here and there. (O'Halloran, Broderick and Wiltzie also collaborated on O'Halloran's solo album, Lumiere, released earlier this year on Max Richter's 130701 imprint—well worth seeking out.) Mostly, A Winged Victory belongs to Wiltzie and O'Halloran, though; it is their baby. Wiltzie's deep washes of blurred guitar drone and O'Halloran's restrained, resonant piano are emotive, breathtaking, beautiful and moving—like Wiltzie's strongest work in Stars of the Lid.

Perhaps my favorite thing about A Winged Victory for the Sullen, though, is that I haven't found a better album all year to listen to in a quiet, reflective state, with a glass of red wine, using a quality pair of headphones. The only other album that comes close this year is Tim Hecker's phenomenal Ravedeath, 1972, also released on—surprise!—Kranky.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 30 October 2011 13:27