Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Eluvium - Nightmare Ending


Copia, 2007's offering by Oregon musician Matthew Cooper under the Eluvium alias, was one of those moments - in inter-creative experience as much as it is/was a musical one - where you found yourself withdrawn from the World. Its classicist imagining of ambient music, perfectly summed up the feeling of escapism and individuality; of simply departing the physical World - entering what might be deemed a fantasy but was actually a lot more earthly and calculable than simply some surreal short-term wandering. It was an album that surmised the prolonging effectiveness a simple idea - a focused point - could inflict on us. It was the idea of fulfillment...and the realization that, more than likely, it would never be fulfilled. But while its sound was one of contentious happiness mixed with unrivaled defeatism, it was never a direction that felt out of place or so creatively beyond understanding. It's a feeling many experience the first few seconds after waking from a dream: still stuck in reality with no real means of reaching your ideal plane of existence. And it was because of this that gave Copia its unparalleled quality. So if that album could be read as a sound caught in such dreamy wavelengths, then 2013's Nightmare Ending - Cooper's own description of it being the spiritual successor to said album - might end up being the complete opposite. The dreaded awakening; the unfathomable fear of the permanent; the life/existence we wish to vacate from...but can't. So does the music - a double-album lasting over eighty minutes - hold itself as highly/gruesomely as the visuals to the album's cover clearly profess?

As mentioned on my track review, Don't Get Any Closer definitely has more of a reclusive and withdrawn vibe, as opposed to Copia's greeting warmth. As always, Eluvium's base for ambiance draws on the piano as a sort of musical epicenter. In this case, it's the heavier chords and droning strings that manifest the sound from out of its state of precaution. Gradually, the drone comes more and more into focus, while the key instrumentation sinks deeper into the mood of the song itself. Warm, while still lying coming off as this mordantly presenting of a half-awake/still-asleep dizziness, holds itself enough to give the blurring texture of strings even more of a reach into something far more transcending, and non-physical as a result. There are hints at a waking visibility; echoey strings trying to come through, almost retaliate against the barricade of drone. But unfortunately they end up hushed away by what is an overly dominant objective; the musical tone of the track conveying a more charred or perhaps burnt flicker of colour, to some degree. The two minute By The Rails doesn't necessarily add to this perceived notion of heat, burning, coarseness. But at the very least it gets the message across that Cooper's perception, and indeed treatment of his compositions, aren't as blissful or as innocent as Copia was made out to be. The realization ultimately is this: our surroundings are not of a positive nature.

The main themes then surrounding the first half of the album could be seen as one of loss - of discovering one's self suddenly manifesting unto this unknown, blurred realm with no real idea of both its location, or even its rules of governance. Unknown Variation comes off like a harsh sandstorm. The listener is caught - perhaps attacked - by a barrage of sound filled with indecipherable textures, yet in its vague solidarity gives an unwelcome feeling of hostility. Cooper's choice of progression; from the dusty, dark winds to what becomes an overwhelming salvo of drone and brazed strings certainly owes much of its success to how visually impacting (or perhaps deterring) the music is from initial surveillance. And more importantly, it's Cooper's skill in managing these layers - in all their ambiguous detail and flustered tone - into becoming one almighty force, that give the characteristics of this surreal tour de force to be met with utmost force. But as mentioned previous, Cooper's usage of piano comes in two forms. On Caroling, we get to see him work around the instrument in a more melodic and organically composed manner. The piano's timbre sounds slightly aged and deteriorated; possibly a reference to the record's encompassing themes of uncertainty, withdrawal and even slight glimpses of terror at times. It's a quality that neither dithers nor aids the piece, but it at least allows the composition - here conveying a slightly more second-guessing, steadied context than previous Cooper pieces - to add as much tonal value as it does contextual value (on an emotive level) likewise.

Needless to say Cooper isn't trying to illustrate the necessities, and neither is he envisaging this malevolent surrounding as something purely concrete. Rather, Eluvium's music is better suited as a sort of half-way foretelling between the individual and the environment. It's clear that the intentional lack of transparency and identity about this sound does lend itself well to the way atmosphere generates so much unearthly, non-physical tension. But the tones and textures used to accommodate his choice of instrumentation definitely lead me to believe Cooper doesn't want us to necessarily see this as objectively dark or menacing. If anything, the album appears to be more a situation-based abridging, as opposed to a dispelling of detail and analysis on every atomic part. Envenom Mettle (which closes the first half of the album) sees Cooper continue to deliberately obscure our view - violins losing all but their namesake amid this void of dust and fog. Yet the placing of percussion - here, drums giving a more rattled and brittle texture in contrast to the atmospheric dankness and insecurity of the former - is what strikes out the most. And given how ferocious the track soon gets as it glides into the second half, the percussion becomes almost a kind of invigorating catalyst for either the character trapped in this droned realm...or in fact, the drone itself. If I were to surmise though, the way the song builds to this loud and auspiciously gross delivery, suggests the percussion could be identified as belonging to both parties; to both the innocent by-stander as well as the malevolent surroundings.

With these sorts of scenarios - the types of situation where music, in the case of its palette and its construction - Cooper manages to create an experience that is as much enticing as it is off-putting. It becomes more and more a sort of emotional oxymoron, in that the sounds feel comfortably uncomfortable; a welcoming invitation into which we're completely thrown to the abyss, so as for isolation or even quarantine. In that respect, it captures the nightmarish twist on being by one's self - as a situational rhetoric to both react towards as well as build one's self up to combat - quite well. Unfortunately though - and this is likely by in large to how content Cooper seems to be with the classicist ideals he's renowned for - I don't feel the more advanced scope of ideas he experiments with here, go far enough. As we move onto the second part of the album, the realization becomes clear (even if the music doesn't) in that, yes, we're still lost in this non-physical realm; this unidentifiable void. But for what? What is it we're experiencing? What's lurking here? Is this abrasive abstractness all there is? Had the answer clearly been the latter, I would have been satisfied. Perhaps tracks like Rain Gently mean to add concreteness to that realization, which is fair enough given how clear it focuses on the roughness and dexterity to open space - filling it with all these molecular textures and vibrant drone offerings. But emotionally, it doesn't offer anything other than a default agreeing that this is an uncomfortable situation. There's no real direct locking-on to a specific feeling or contextual vibe, and for that, the infinite breadth of the music comes across devoid for the wrong reasons. Further to that, the way the strings build themselves up - drone beginning to increase in its harshness and its extremity - suggests something positive, or even uplifting is present.

But because of what's happened in regards to the actual narrative (in as vague a shape and presence it is here) and the flow of the album, the stark contrast of emotion comes rather unexpected and quite out-of-place. I'm not convinced this is something that's been building up or even been alluded to previous. Even if the mood is one of a welcoming brightness, there does remain this lingering caution and surrounding omnipresence. Are we in a better conceptual field of vision/emotion? Is the nightmare still present? What exactly is going on? I'm not sure just where and what I, the listener/spectator/victim, should be physically and emotionally be generating, and given how much confusion and flustered uncertainty there is, the listener ends up detached from what is a very depth-driven range of sounds. So it's comforting that the track Covered In Writing comes in where my doubts and speculation feel like they're reaching critical. It's not just the overwhelming freedom and liberation that's enticing - strings, while still withdrawn and presented in this blinding fog of noise, come across as more like a shining beacon as opposed to a menacing hindrance - but it's the recognizable Eluvium treatment of building one's self through the music, and thus finding a sort of transcending connection with the sounds being offered, that generates a kind of personal acceptance and comfort with what I'm experiencing. Happiness is a fitting title for the album's ending track, not because it dictates the precise emotions the listener should be feeling, but instead it's the best way to describe how humbly content and almost grateful the sounds seem to project themselves. But contrary to that, Cooper's layering suggests that while this may be a kind of musical happy-ending to what has been a troubling eighty-or-so minutes, it hasn't forgotten what's taken place. The piano and strings do conjure that familiar warmth and feeling of brimful awakening, but the way the drone parts remain ever-present, leads me to believe that the malevolence of the record's story - the force behind the supposed nightmare environments - may well be removed, but they aren't necessarily or objectively gone for good.

I don't want to turn this into a pure Copia comparison. But given this is how the album has been treated - albeit an antithesis to it - I can't help but end my conclusion on why, ultimately, I feel Nightmare Ending doesn't hold itself as strongly to what Eluvium's 2007 opus managed (and still manages every time I come back to it) to generate. There's a distinct sense of discomfort and, as mentioned, emotional anxiety - that the listener is clearly made to experience throughout - regarding how hostile and almost xenophobic the sounds of this record convey. Cooper's visualizing is evidently one of distance and of speculation. In that respect, I can definitely see this as being Eluvium's most transparent album, in how it paints independance as a benefactor to loneliness and insecurity. Unfortunately, where the actual musical material is concerned, there are countless moments that not only struggle to finalize this precise emotive context/scenario, but also come off less like the antithesis they're trying to be. Rather, even as the harshness and most extreme treatments of instrumentation finally hit you, there's little to suggest this stands as the exact opposite to Copia's natured, dream-fulfilling richness. If anything, Nightmare Ending is like an emptied box with little lost detail replaced. The ambition is lesser as a result, even if Cooper's investigation into individuality - and all the dangers/struggles it presents us with both in the real World, as well as in our dreams/nightmares - is what's emphatically striking about this record. And given how strong a theme Cooper has managed to maintain throughout his decade-long career, when comparing this alongside other records in his catalog - even with the semantics of loneliness and danger - it's something that many listeners will generate, on more than one unfortunate case, a squint of uncertainty...and nothing more.
~Jordan

6.7

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