Even though I should absolutely know better, I have spent plenty of time and money over the years trying to find new artists that scratch roughly the same itch that several of my favorites did in their prime. In my heart, I know that no one will ever be able to replicate the magic of classic Dead Can Dance or Zoviet France or whoever, but that certainly does not stop me from endlessly disappointing myself with my doomed and stupid quest. Sometimes, however, I am drawn towards an album due to its surface resemblance to something familiar only to discover that the artist shot right past the target nostalgia zone to achieve something that is unique and wonderful in its own right. That is the case with this latest release from Brian McWilliams' long-running Aperus project, which calls to both the "sci-fi tribal" aesthetic of classic Zoviet France/Rapoon and the desert/ethno-ambient side of Projekt's late ‚Äò90s heyday (Steve Roach, et al.). As far as I am concerned, that is an absolutely wonderful stylistic niche to stake out, but McWilliams' execution is what elevates Archaic Signal into something truly special. Rather than simply recalling the iconic figures who birthed a milieu that I love, this album reveals that those original visions have evolved into a compelling new phase with some visionary architects of its own.
One of my many pet theories is that our immediate surroundings play an enormous role in both how we feel about ourselves and the world as a whole.Consequently, I had a bit of a "eureka!" moment when I listened to an Alan Moore interview in which he observed that if you feel you are living in a rat hole, you start to feel like a rat.Conversely, if you see magic and history all around you, you start to feel like you can do great things yourself.I bring this up because I do not think that this album could exist if Brian McWilliams was not a landscape photographer living in "the high deserts of northern New Mexico," as space, solitude, and a healthy immersion in the non-human natural world are near-essential pre-requisites for escaping the numbing noise of the current age long enough to contemplate more existential and timeless matters.
Based on the conceptual inspirations behind Archaic Signal, it is clear that McWilliams was impressively successful in that escape from noise, as the album took shape around his revelation that bird songs, cosmic noise, radio transmissions, and ancient petroglyphs are all potentially part of the same infinite communication continuum extending throughout all of time and space.Appropriately, each of those threads finds its way into the album somehow, as these nine songs are peppered with bird sounds and an unpredictable array of radio transmissions picked up by a high-powered radio antenna in the Netherlands (numbers stations, space noise, garbled news broadcasts, a distorted call to prayer).The petroglyphs, on the other hand, are included as an accompanying series of postcard-sized art.Given McWilliams pedigree as a photographer, it is not surprising that the images provided with the physical album are an integral part of the whole, but the petroglyphs add an enticing layer of mystery as well.If I were inclined, it would be very easy to tie my mind in knots trying to figure out if any image holds the Rosetta Stone that reveals a shared deeper meaning that unites cave art, happily twittering birds, and the cryptic radio transmissions of distant star systems.
The album opens in admirably strong fashion with the throbbing and gnarled menace of "New Antenna," but it is the following title piece that best illustrates the album's overarching aesthetic.The heart of "Archaic Signal" is a warm haze of intermingled drones that slowly curls like smoke.At the same time, a swelling undercurrent transforms into a lazily heaving pulse that feels like a series of vast cosmic exhalations while a surreal host of phantasmal sounds in the periphery billow and smear, emerging from the drones like organically growing tendrils.Gradually, the original theme evolves into an unexpectedly heavenly coda of choral voices floating through a hissing sea of static and chatter.It all amounts to absolutely gorgeous piece for a number of reasons, but the primarily one is that McWilliams creates a compelling and dynamically rich central theme that propels the piece forward, then enhances it with a series of subtle psychedelic flourishes that feel like a fraying of reality's edges that hints at greater depths yet to be revealed.Needless to say, doing that and making it seem organic and effortless is a neat trick and McWilliams repeats it again and again in varying form as the album unfolds.
Each of Archaic Signal's nine songs is strong in its own way, but my favorite stretch is a three-song streak near the middle of the album that begins with the seething, undulating, and immersive swirl of "Newspaper Rock."It never quite evolves into anything more, but it does not need to, as it feels like a warm and beautiful dream state that lazily swells and recedes like the rhythm of the tides.The epic "Canopy of Stars," on the other hand, is the album's deepest foray into the "sci-fi tribal" aesthetic, as massive drones heave over a stomping and clicking percussion motif en route to a wonderfully churning and blackened finale.The following "Birdsong as Mantra" almost feels like a supernatural deepening of the scene painted by its predecessor, evoking the disorienting sense that time is bending and stretching as I sink further into another layer of reality.In more plain terms, it is an enveloping feast of deep, heavy oscillations and cheerily burbling bird songs that smear and linger in pleasingly hallucinatory ways.¬†¬†¬†¬†
The usual peril with deep drone music in this vein is that so many artists lack the harmonic sensibility and lightness of touch necessary to pull it off, resulting in a mountain of forgettable and interchangeable releases celebrating monochromatic bass thrum, seismic rumble, and echoing cracks.Admittedly, such fare can still be impressive if an artist's sound design talents are exceptional, but McWilliams takes a much more nuanced, complexly evocative, and personal path.Rather than attempting to replicate the sheer power and scale of massive geological or cosmological events, McWilliams has instead managed to evoke the sense of wonder that they inspire on a human scale.The difference is significant, as it is extremely satisfying to feel like I am lying on my back beneath a vast, twinkling panorama of stars, drinking in all the rich sensory details of my surroundings.It is dramatically less satisfying to merely think "I guess this captures the cold infinity of space pretty well."The former is truly rare achievement and McWilliams has managed to do it as well as just about anyone with Archaic Signal.Needless to say, I will soon be digging further into McWilliams' discography to see what other exquisite pleasures I may have slept on, but is hard to imagine any way that he could improve upon this particulate release.With the arguable exception of the dub-techno elements in "Archaeodreaming," Archaic Signal is an unwaveringly sustained and absorbing spell that successfully untethered me from the present reality and dropped me into a vividly realized alternate world of beauty and mystery.While I suppose only time will tell if this album is destined to become a classic of the genre, it definitely feels like one to me right now.True objectivity about art is basically impossible, obviously, but if I try to disregard the romance of nostalgia, I am hard-pressed to think of many canonical albums in this vein that are as thoughtfully constructed and immersive as this one.
Samples can be found here.