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Seabuckthorn, "Through a Vulnerable Occur"

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Over the last several years, it has seemed like each new Seabuckthorn release marks yet another significant creative breakthrough for Andy Cartwright. This latest one, his first for France's IIKKI Books imprint, is intended as a multimedia "dialogue" with Australian photographer Sophie Gabrielle. Given the increasingly cinematic cast of this project, composing an accompaniment for a book of stark and striking photographs is hardly a stretch, but Cartwright's vision has nevertheless grown even more sophisticated since last year's Crossing. Much like its predecessor, Through A Vulnerable Occur showcases Cartwright's ingenious and endlessly evolving talent for rendering his guitar largely unrecognizable as such, yet his emphasis on details, textures, and small scale dynamics is even more pronounced and masterful this time around. Given that Vulnerable Occur crosses the blurry line between melodic "songs" and more abstract soundscapes a bit more than previous releases, it admittedly took me a few listens to fully warm to it. Once I was fully immersed its rich tapestry of layers and nuances, however, Vulnerable Occur revealed itself to be a slow-burning masterpiece of elegantly controlled tension.


I am always fascinated and somewhat amazed whenever I encounter a virtuosic instrumentalist who is able to egolessly cast aside their technical prowess in pursuit of a bold new vision, such as laptop-era Jim O'Rourke or modular synth-era Cam Deas.On this latest release, Cartwright himself fully earns a place in that illustrious pantheon, as he now focuses entirely upon droning soundscapes of bowed strings rather than the rapidly picked, rolling arpeggios of his earlier days.Despite that ambitious transformation, a distinctive "haunted Americana" feel remains a consistent thread in Cartwright's work and he has only gotten better at evoking a complete and fully formed world of his own (as opposed to composing work that feels like a cool soundtrack in search of a suitably bleak and arty western to accompany).A lingering trace of the former Cartwright does briefly surface in the rippling melancholy arpeggios of "While There By The Woods," but the opening "Toward the Warmth" is far more representative of Seabuckthorn's current aesthetic: a slow-motion reverie of swelling strings embellished with metallic sharpness and ghostly vapor trails of decay.The most apt adjective for Cartwright's current vision is "painterly," as each piece feels like a wonderfully enigmatic, haunting, and masterfully composed scene.The analogy actually goes even deeper than that though, as Cartwright would be the kind of painter who mercilessly scrutinized every brush stroke to ensure that every single nuance felt meaningful, necessary, and right.While he might occasionally err on the side of too understated, Cartwright's instincts for detail, texture, and small-scare dynamic shifts are almost supernaturally infallible (especially on the second half of this album).

The album’s centerpiece is the eerily beautiful "Other Other," as Cartwright beautifully weaves together delicate charango arpeggios, pulsing bass tones, violin-like drones, and a spectral swirl of shimmering overtones and guitar noise.I particularly love the glimmering washes of delay-heavy harmonics that blossom in the piece's final minutes.While the first half of Vulnerable Occur contains a few highlights of its own, such the smoldering and gently undulating title piece, "Other Other" is the turning point where the album truly catches fire in earnest.Everything that follows is great, but I am especially fond of "Copper & Indigo" and "The Sunken Room."In the former, a shivering bowed motif throws off sharp harmonics as heavier metallic tones hollowly heave and reverberate in the depths.In "The Sunken Room," on the other hand, twinkling fragments of melody flutter and ripple in a gently heaving sea of blurred, anguished-sounding swells.While the simmering intensity of the album's heavier pieces understandably tends to stand out, Cartwright also does a fine job of balancing that darkness with a bit more light than usual.That expanded mood palette is both welcome and effective, as the contrast adds heft to the darker moments and makes for a more immersive, nuanced, and emotionally resonant whole.The album even closes on one of those brighter notes, as "Or A Morning Blue in the East" calls to mind the sun-dappled surface of a gently rippling pond on a warm spring day.Elsewhere, the brief "Toward the Alone" is even more radiantly lovely, approximating the healing warmth of flickering sunlight filtered through a stained glass window.

Another way in which Through a Vulnerable Occur is like a painting is that its full beauty and depth take some time to reveal themselves, much like a mysterious scene whose meaning can only be unlocked by noticing a crucial detail or the subtleties of a facial expression.Obviously, listening with headphones helped immensely in fully immersing myself in Cartwright’s vision, yet once I was drawn into its vivid details I could not stop finding other fresh aspects to fall in love with.I suppose the album works best when Cartwright combines his textural genius with some more overtly melodic themes, as he does on "Other Other," but the lion's share of what I love about the album lies in the gnarled physicality of the bowed strings, the delicate dance of harmonics and overtones, and the way the pieces twist and undulate like living entities.While I am not sure Vulnerable Occur necessarily tops the best moments on my previous favorite Seabuckthorn album (A House With Too Much Fire), it definitely feels like a stronger whole and a more perfectly realized vision.In fact, this album is exactly what I have been in the mood for recently and there is nothing else that quite scratches the same itch as this strain of simmering and subtly blackened rural psychedelia.As much as I love some other drone-inspired and experimentally minded psych-folk visionaries like The Anaksimandros, Kemialliset Ystävät, and Enhet För Fri Musik, none share anything quite like Cartwright's unwavering focus and talent for sustained, smoldering intensity.I am thrilled that his years of tireless creative evolution finally led him to this place, as Vulnerable Occur feels like the album where Seabuckthorn has finally found its true home.

Samples can be found here.