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Maggi Payne, "Crystal"

cover imageFor good reason, it is usually a safe bet to assume that any newly reissued '80s obscurity entitled something like "Crystal" is going to be lazily pastoral New Age-y synth noodling. This album, originally released in 1986 on Lovely Music, is quite an unexpected and dramatic exception to that generalization though. Perversely, Payne uses roughly the same palette (flute, synth, voice) that one might expect for such serene fare, yet Crystal is a strikingly dark, heavy, and unnerving album from start to finish. I cannot say I have ever encountered anything else quite like it, which makes some sense given Payne's pedigree and general milieu (she is co-director of the famed Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College). The nearest human reference points are probably Gyorgy Ligeti or the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, but Crystal most closely resembles a deep plunge in howling cosmic horror or the endless void of space. Given its challenging and uncomfortable nature, it is easy to see why Payne's work is less well-known than that of her less menacing contemporaries Eliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros, but her vision was certainly no less formidable.


The opening "White Night" slowly fades into being in deceptively subdued fashion, slowly taking shape as a shivering and whining bed of drones with a dark and ominously pulsing undercurrent.That undercurrent soon eclipses everything else, however, and is further bolstered by a roaring hiss that gets louder and louder.Eventually, the engulfing maelstrom collapses to leave only a stuttering drum machine rhythm that leads into still more strange transformations.Some of there are more compelling than others, but Payne cycles through motifs a bit too quickly for my liking.If it were not for the sheer elemental force and the escalating heaviness of Payne’s slowly snowballing crescendos, I probably would not have lingered much beyond "White Night."I am grateful that I stuck around though, as the rest of Crystal is considerably more focused and plunges far beyond the territory that other space music luminaries like Lustmord and Steve Roach have exhausted.The following "Sirocco," for example, continues the deep space vibe of its predecessor, but takes it in far more of a Solaris direction: the massed howling voices make me feel like an abandoned astronaut damned to wander a haunted space station forever amidst a fantasia of dark, unwanted hallucinations.Again, however, Payne is very idiosyncratic with her structure: the engulfing cosmic horror periodically dissolves into oases of relative calm and lucidity.Those spells do not last for long, but they are very effective in paving the way for the next visceral plunge into lysergic darkness to make maximum impact.It is kind of an amazing piece, distilling pure horror and alienation into ten perfect minutes of reality and reason being ripped apart in particularly ugly and gnarled fashion.

The title piece opens the second side, slowly creeping into the picture as an unsettling series of undulating metallic whines that fitfully cohere into shrill harmonies.Beneath it all, a whooshing and frothing electronic thrum steadily escalates in power, gradually pushing everything else out and returning Crystal once more to the alienating enormity of the howling void.It is a bit more complex this time around though, resembling a slow-motion blizzard of roaring emptiness.Unexpectedly, however, a coda of warm, dreamily flanging synths blossoms up from the nothingness to end the piece with a few minutes of appropriately crystalline beauty.The album’s final piece ("Solar Wind") initially seems to maintain that fragile idyll, as a tender and understated swirl of ghostly, unsettling harmonies gradually becomes more twinkling and lovely, despite some persistently lingering shadows. Characteristically, however, all traces of prettiness are scoured away by a roiling surge of corrosive white noise…then silence.Slowly, an eerily shivering haze of queasy harmonies billows up to linger and undulate like a sickly fog for the remaining moments.It is evocative in an impressively ugly way, like I am given a glimpse of a lovely vista only to see if immediately napalmed, leaving only a sinister-looking sunset filtering through the thick smoke.

Unsurprisingly, Crystal is a hard album to love, as Payne weaves a very convincing and sustained nightmare of large-scale ineffable dread and oppressive darkness.There are admittedly some fleeting moments of light and beauty to be found as well, but they provide contrast more than they define Crystal's essence.Still, somewhat uneven opening aside, this is an album that genuinely inspires awe during its most visceral moments.Historically, it is impressive that Crystal predates the heyday of dark, deep space ambience by at least a decade, but it also feels significantly different in tone and scope than anything that followed.Albums like The Magnificent Void and The Place Where The Black Stars Hang feel like attempts to capture the feel of space's cold immensity.  Crystal, on the other hand, feels like Payne somehow made a field recording of an anguished inhuman howl that has been sweeping across time and space at unheard frequencies for millennia.That is quite a remarkable feat indeed and it makes for quite a harrowing listen, as Crystal's climaxes feel like I am being smothered by malign roaring entropy (I suspect that this is the most terrifying album ever recorded by a flautist).To some degree, the three decades that have passed since Crystal's release have blunted its impact a bit, as Payne's greatest gift was clearly sound design and music production technology has evolved a lot since 1986.In other respects, however, this is still quite a singular outing, as Payne's compositions have a very unusual and unpredictable structure full of pregnant silences, unnerving atmospheres, and roaring crescendos.It is that talent for striking dynamic shifts and ambiguously nightmarish ambiance that continues to make this a special and compelling album today.