It has been a while since this duo of James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas last surfaced, but they are back with a new EP to celebrate Subtext's 50th release. Since releasing 2019's Blossoms, the pair have been quite busy with other projects, as Purgas's research played a crucial role in the release of The NID Tapes: Electronic Music from India 1969-1972 while Ginzburg has kept himself occupied with running a record label, releasing solo albums, and performing as part of "experimental supergroup" Osmium. Emptyset was never fully dormant, however, and Ginzburg and Purgas convened in Bristol this summer to shape their accumulated ideas into one of their most focused and singular releases in recent memory. It is also one of their most concise, as ash clocks in at an extremely lean 16-minutes. If this were any other project, that brevity would suggest a serious dearth of fresh ideas or compelling new material, but it is exactly the right length for a perfect distillation of Emptyset's viscerally spasmodic and pummeling percussion assaults.
Much like their Manchester peers Autechre, it is very easy to forget that James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas were ever interested in making beat-driven music aimed for the dancefloor, as they long ago plunged into an avant-garde rabbit hole of abstract deconstructionism, cutting edge sound design, and self-built instruments and have not looked back since. I bring up that origin for a reason, as understanding that ash was inspired by Bristol's sound system culture is crucial to grasping the appeal of the duo's current vision. In fact, I was initially underwhelmed by these songs, as I could not understand why Ginzburg in particular would want to regress to punishing, no-frills rhythm workouts after blowing me away with the droning immensity of his 2021 solo album crystallise, a frozen eye.
Eventually, however, I got around to listening to ash on headphones and everything immediately made sense again: this is not an EP intended for casual listening. The correct way to experience ash is to crank it up so loud that you can feel every seismic crunch, vibration, and throb. Once I had that revelation, ash immediately transformed into something considerably more brilliant and unique. This is absolutely not the place to look for great songcraft or killer beats, but it is probably one of the best releases around for those looking for precision-engineered brutality, masterfully harnessed spatialized sound, and intense physicality. Someone should commission a forward-thinking ballet company to choreograph a mind-blowing performance for one of these songs immediately.
Musically, ash-era Emptyset shares a healthy amount of common ground with classic Godflesh, as the main ingredients are overloaded bass and a fondness for bludgeoning, mechanized repetition, but it would be closer to the mark to suggest that their primary influences are "convulsions" and "the futuristic battle scenes from the Terminator movies." Some pieces certainly evoke robot tanks rolling over piles of crunching bones in a scorched and broken landscape more strongly than others ("embers" being the best example), but the differences between these six songs are less important than their common ground of shuddering waves of distorted bass, lurching rhythms, and slow-motion machine gun snares. Experiencing this album is a lot like getting thwacked in the head with six different baseball bats: they would certainly all have their own unique character, but the subtle differences between them would be unavoidably eclipsed by the force of the impact.
To my ears, the best moments are probably "cinder" (I half expected viscous trails of blood to start running down my walls when the opening fog of grinding and menacing dissonance appeared) or the title piece ("a giant sentient typewriter with malicious intent" meets "the space-time continuum warps, stretches, and tears during a fireworks display"), but every one of these pieces is an absolute banger. That is an impressive achievement in itself, obviously, but a full album of such uninterrupted bludgeoning would be absolutely exhausting and would quickly yield diminishing returns. To their everlasting credit, however, Purgas and Ginzburg understood the limitations of their vision and were wise enough to keep most of ash's violent, churning convulsions under three minutes: if there was ever an album that has earned the coveted "all killer, no filler" mantle, it is this one. Every single song makes a deep impact and the whole thing is over long before any numbness starts to set in.
In a 2017 interview, Ginzburg noted that he and Purgas leave "piles and heaps of detritus on the cutting room floor" and now I understand why: ash is the sort of perfect distillation that could have only been made by absolutely ruthless editors willing to throw away months of work and several albums worth of material to just to wind up with one great 16-minute EP.