by Paul Ashby
In 2011, Stars of the Lid founder Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie collaborated with Dustin O’Halloran for a project called A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Its debut album was released on the Kranky and Erased Tapes labels.
The Undivided Five is A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s second studio album since its 2011 self-titled debut, if you don’t count Atomos, its remarkable 2014 score for the Wayne McGregor dance concept.
Which I do. Because of stuff like this.
It seems the most valuable AWVFTS-related works during this 2014-to-2019 vacuum were albums from Wiltzie and O’Halloran, including the latter’s film and television scoring work. And there’s those two indispensable contributions on (Dustin’s Devics cohort) Sara Lov’s masterpiece, Some Kind of Champion.
Wiltzie, too, has been active in film, scoring the 2019 release American Woman, an impressive work worthy of a review all its own.
If a thirsty newcomer feels the compulsion to sip from any or all of the above, and still deigns to quaff deeply of the freshly-poured AWVFTS chalice, be prepared. The song titles, alone, often read like the result of a round or two of Exquisite Corpse after a round or three of absinthe. Or avec laudanum.
(For instance — this song, track 18 from a 2007 Stars of the Lid album:)
Before venturing further, may I buttonhole dear reader with a discussion of pigeonholes?
A Winged Victory for the Sullen isn’t neo-classical, despite what certain wags on Roon might allege. Modern classical? No. Faint praise. What else you got? It’s not, by any hyperextended flex of the imagination, “post-classical,” or (ew) post-rock. Or “ambient,” whatever that’s come to mean over the past 40+ years.
If you require a genre for your tag-dependent audio library, it’s important to accept AWVFTS as its own genre. No one is recording or performing music that comes close to what Wiltzie and O’Halloran are creating.
It’s strictly instrumental music. No vocals, but these pieces are perfectly able to communicate emotions that no mere vocalist could mouth.
When I consider attempting to categorize A Winged Victory for the Sullen, I remember Robert Wyatt’s response when asked what genre his music falls into.
What I do, it’s not even in a category that I could name. And this is not some attempt to be different. It just isn’t: it isn’t rock ’n’ roll, it isn’t jazz, it isn’t modern classical music, it isn’t folk music. It doesn’t exist as a genre. It’s like a Galápagos Island animal, some kind of underwater duck. Just some sort of thing that I turned out to be.
Let’s chat about The Undivided Five, then, finally.
In early October, the Ninja Tune label released two advance tracks from the album. One, “The Haunted Victorian Pencil”, is a moody piano étude by O’Halloran, and might qualify as a post-romantic homage to Erik Satie. It’s over before you can even hum along.
The other advance track was “The Rhythm Of A Divided Pair.” This one has an inarguable Adam Wiltzie feel to it: gleaming washes of four-chord synthesis that eddy, crest, and ebb. The final half of the composition coalesces when a four-note bass sequence provides a foundation for shifting orchestral arrangements. I could listen to this one for much longer than the 4:53 track affords; as with “Haunted,” the brevity and economy of the arrangement is both a detriment and an asset.
Those AWVFTS fellows and their damn coy juxtaposition. Leave ’em wanting more? Color me “’em.”
Advances, pah. Once the genuine, full article arrived on November 1st, a more substantial delve into the first real Winged Victory album since 2014 — or, heck, 2011, even — was overdue.
Ready? Oh, ready, to be sure. I feigned blasé, but wasn’t fooling anyone.
The first track, “Our Lord Debussy” (perhaps a bit on the nose, that?) plays like AWVFTS’s MO writ large. Contemplative piano chords from O’Halloran. Swelling strings bringing up the back of the mix, with varying reverb and decay rates. Then there’s that eye-widening crescendo at 2:20 that fades to near-silence but for a gentle drone that returns us to the piano motif.
It’s barely the first song, but things are taking on a solemn hue. How solemn? Turns out the duo re-amped the orchestral arrangements for most of the album in a Brussels church just steps away from Wiltzie’s flat.
(some audio NSFW)
“Sullen Sonata” is all layered strings and airy polysynths, presented in alternating doppler’d waves and intervals of silence. Initially, it brings to mind the first track on Atomos. It’d be just as at home at 35,000 feet as it would be in your darkened listening room. There’s not much in the way of song structure, but the the stratosphere-straddling, overlaid sounds make this one the perfect accompaniment for sitting back and watching the clouds go by, no matter what your altitude.
Wiltzie has referred to the band’s approach as “melancholia”. If melancholy can have momentum, AWVFTS has the skill to bring it, and, with the first chords of the fourth song, “The Slow Descent Has Begun,” there’s no doubt. A mournful violin solo foreshadows a brooding string section interlude, then the orchestra takes over to gravitate the weight home for the close.
In less than five minutes, things have gotten heavy. Visions of further heaviness hover.
Bring your own altar. The church of melancholia is in session.
“Aqualung, Motherfucker” launches with deep bass chords anchoring the first minutes in a fashion similar to Pieter Nooten/Michael Brooks’ Sleeps With Fishes, or one of the darker-tinged moods off Ambient 4 (albeit with a heavier, less “found” hand) and drizzled with leavings of Michael Brook’s Hybrid. Did I say “anchoring”? As the piece progresses, it’s more like we’re adrift. All those comparisons make me too tired to row further metaphorical waves, so I’m just going to hope we run aground soon (but oh, wait, the whole affair sounds like a backing track to a harrowing Joe Frank monologue. And, of course, that’s a good thing).
“A Minor Fifth Is Made of Phantoms” (or is it Seventh?) is another tone poem. It resembles Stars of the Lid’s deceptively amorphous drone: distant, winsome chorales of volume-pedaled guitar chords and depth-charged descending bass notes, all bundled up with near-infinite reverb algorithms (excuse me, don’t I mean cavernous Euro-cathedral effects?).
“Adios, Florida” could be my favorite track here (along with “Aqualung, Motherfucker”, natch). Oh, damn. Here, the salt water’s rising around the legs of the pews as the pipe organist dons galoshes and sloshes the pedals. There’s another one of those crescendoes at 3 minutes in, soaking your subwoofer with a white-noise crest. As it breaks, the static gives way to a moody backwash that builds to a soused, filtered fiddle, then misted, tremulous strings… giving way to a final, sudden portamento where you can almost glimpse Miami Beach being inundated by a permanent 15-foot king tide.
Come AWVFTS or high water. Praise be.
Dustin O’Halloran moved from Berlin to Iceland this year. Perhaps we should keep that in mind when looking for the deeper meaning behind the manner in which The Undivided Five concludes — O’Halloran’s succinct solo piano on “Keep it Dark, Deutschland.”
Ah, meaning. Wherefore art thou, context?
What essence is to be found in the somber, timbral collages that make up The Undivided Five? There’s an important background to bring to the fore, first.
The presence of Jóhann Jóhannsson, friend of the band, who passed away suddenly in February 2018, permeates the project.
Yes, the album has a heaviness — yet, also, a lightness, both in weight and illumination. Jóhannsson’s substantial volume of work has the same qualities. His solo work and film music touched so many, in so many ways; it’s natural to expect that a work inspired, in part, by him, would be touching, as well.
The result is an album that not only honors Jóhann’s memory, friendship, and life work, but also, given the chance, proves that Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie’s considerable time, effort, and deliberation can and will stand on its own considerable merits. You get the feeling that Jóhann would be proud.
While listening to The Undivided Five four or five dozen times over the past month — on my phone, in my truck, and on my home stereo system — I wondered about my expectations. Anticipation was high leading up to the release. During the initial few listens (admittedly, it was an MP3 rip of a promo stream), though, I was under-wow’d.
Nothing on the new album seemed to have the understated majesty of “We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced, for the Earth Had Circled the Sun Yet Another Year” or “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears,” or the transcendent, ethereal gravitas of “Atomos VII” (granted, those are adjectives I’d come to apply after hundreds of listens. Ask me about this album again next year, when I’ve had a chance to fully digest the Five).
The sparse minimalism of a three- or four-piece string section on the self-titled debut and Atomos is gone. The dynamic maximalism of a full orchestra has taken its place; the expanded instrumentation works within and without the context of the new compositions. For fans of the previous album or two, the fuller sound requires some getting used to.
Past A Winged Victory for the Sullen recordings are wonderful for showing the full depth of a decent system. This one is no different. Headphone playback may reveal some details, but The Undivided Five benefits more from the sound of a room. It’s not an album you spin in the background, or just once or twice. It’s best played, repeatedly, in your imperfect room on your imperfect system in a perfectly dark atmosphere, over weeks. It invites active listening — or, at least, the kind of listening that rewards the active listener. Over repeatedly plays, diffusely subtle moods become more defined, and the various patterns and atmospheres begin to take shape.
The Undivided Five is a sad, solemn, contemplative album.
But it’s also ecstatic, celebratory, and sublime.
Nothing’s sacred, apparently. But this thing is well-nigh worthy of an extended kneel on a Sunday. Or Saturday. Or any day. And it’s the best release of 2019, along with Heather Woods Broderick’s Invitation.
The Undivided Five, as it’s finally presented itself, may or may not be something deserving of worship. But it was worth the wait, and worthy of your undivided attention.
Vinyl vs. FLAC?
I ordered the LPs (black vinyl and colored vinyl versions far in advance of release, because I’m a fan, and weird that way) from the band’s Bandcamp page. They were shipped from the UK label. The flimsy carton — I wouldn’t have used a box of this quality to ship something to someone a block away, let alone a continent — arrived seven days past street date, with not enough packing tape, and with insufficient padding. The jackets on both albums were trashed in transit, with corners crimped to the point it was difficult to remove the discs from the jackets. Both discs were audibly and visibly warped to the point that track one on each side was close to unplayable.
The label, when contacted, offered to give me a 50% discount on my next order if I’d keep the mangled jackets (I sent them requested photos of the damage). They would send me replacement covers. Oh — and, if I could document the warps with photographs, why, of course they’d send replacement discs.
This was, of course, an unusual request. How do you document a warped LP with a photo? I ended up spinning both LPs on the turntable and taking cellphone videos of the stylus riding the warped bumps, and emailing them to the label.
(Upon receving said videos, Ninja Tune relented, and sent replacement LPs. And a free CD. And promised a beefier shipping carton. Bless their hearts).
There was another, larger, issue with the vinyl.
I don’t expect anything from colored vinyl. When I do buy it, it’s because it’s pretty. It usually sounds bad.
To be blunt: the clicks and pops — on the black vinyl, even after cleaning on a VPI machine, and shooting with a Zerostat — were many. This may’ve be due to the paper innersleeves being compressed by a cheap cardboard carton with no padding via trans-Atlantic post. Who can say? The intermittent surface noise, though, is disappointing to the point that it’s difficult to determine how good the vinyl mastering is. The bass response is certainly there. But, compared to the 24/96 FLACs from Bandcamp, the latter is the obvious choice.
Note: some language NSFW.
About the Author
Paul Ashby has, gratefully, retired from the music business, but still can’t resist sniping from the sidelines from time to time.
He lives in Contra Costa County, California, with his partner Kate, and their cats, Waffles and Timmy. He may be approaching the tipping point where he enjoys gardening and landscaping more than music.
We’ll see how that pans out.
You can find Paul semi-regularly on his own site, Anything But MP3.