Album review: A Winged Victory For the Sullen – ‘Invisible Cities’: thrilling set pushes way beyond polite ambience

WHEN Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie, amniotic drone practitioner extraordinaire, announced that he would be entering into a long-term musical partnership with modern compositional pianist, former Bella Union-signed guitarist and soundtrack composer Dustin O’Halloran, you could very safely bet the shirt off your back that only good things were going to come of it.

And so it has proved to be; their self-titled debut album for Erased Tapes in 2011, which first married Adam’s thrilling way with a drone with Dustin’s self-taught, Satiesque way at the piano garnered AWVFTS immediate royalty status in the world of post-rock/post-classical/modern composition, or however we’re currently defining it. Personally, I can’t believe it’s ten (ten!) years old this year; in my head they’re still a new prospect. Nurse, fetch my blanket.

Two further studio albums have emerged since: 2014’s Atomos, and last year’s The Undivided Five on new home, Ninja Tune. Both have seen something of a progression towards braver, darker sonics, and away from a middle ground in the sphere which, for all its beauty and relaxing nature and intelligence and passion and skill, can sometimes be a little too … well … too nice, maybe? Like your perfectly groomed cousin in the Salvation Army.

There’s also, of course, been two soundtracks in that time, too. Both members have strong CVs in the field; Adam scored Mike Plunkett’s feature Salero in 2016, the Sienna Miller-starring American Woman last year, and others; Dustin has a sold half-dozen under his belt, some in collaboration, such as his soundtrack with Hauschka for the 2016 film, Lion; and solo, as with 2013’s Breathe In. Together as A Winged Victory for the Sullen the pair scored the independent film Iris, which of course was issued on vinyl.

And this week they’re releasing another soundtrack album: Invisible Cities.

This new album comprises the score to the critically acclaimed theatre production of that name, directed by London Olympics ceremony video designer Leo Warner and which premiered at Manchester International Festival in July 2019.

The duo were commissioned to compose the music for this 90-minute multimedia stage show, which is loosely inspired by Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities. The novel, a masterpiece of late 20th-century magical realism, focusses on the tense relationship between Kublai Khan, volatile head of a vast empire, and the explorer Marco Polo, who describes 55 fantastical cities of the ‘known’ world from his travels; all brought to life in theatre, music, dance, design and visuals.

It was a touring project whose last performance took place in Brisbane, Australia, before the ‘rona upended culture. 

Adam and Dustin’s new album takes the score and reproduces 45 minutes of it for us vinyl heads and others. The album will be released on their own Artificial Pinearch Manufacturing imprint under agreement with their current label, Ninja Tune. You know it’ll be lovely. And deep. And really quite something. Oh, and maybe more.

A Winged Victory For The Sullen, photographed by Jónatan Grétarsson

A little caveat, here: as with any commissioned soundtrack, the music to a greater or lesser extent informs the visuals it underpins; some soundtracks are more complete than others, some more fragmentary. With Invisible Cities in particular we don’t have the lingua franca of the movie to dive into later, should we want to. Nevertheless Adam and Dustin’s score serves very, very fine and fulfilling purpose as a standalone work.

And neither is it fragmentary in nature, although tonally and musically it operates across a broad palette; as Pitchfork’s Brian Howe memorably said of last year’s The Undivided Five, “There are few extractable moments because everything is interwoven; any time something is resolving, something else is taking shape.” And that so holds true of Invisible Cities; it’s music of a fluvial nature for a visual experience.

In fact maybe one of only two strictly interstitial pieces of the whole baker’s dozen is “The Merchants Of Seven Nations”, which falls towards the end of the set; a piece mainly given over to the talents of Dustin, and a respite from the some of the high musical torrents boiling elsewhere. The album sets out its stall in “So That The City Can Begin To Exist”, a surge of sweeping tone underpinning piano, the chords in that sweet emotional spot: beautiful yet also mournful. Adam’s tonal sweep has the occasional edge of near-feedback, the singing tone of a high violin. He knows more than pretty much anyone about the high deliciousness of tone within drone. The second chordal passage is sterner, while those drone tones surge forward in twined currents.

“The Celestial City” has a more humanist, choral feel, the little micropause in the opening vocal loop giving a very tiny metronomic pulse. The brass brings an old-school Hollywood grandeur, which cinematic sweep is rent by a tremulous ‘tronica pleading, a muezzin call of the digital, edging into distortion with Dustin’s piano riding pillion.

“The Dead Outnumber The Living” is an interlude of string’d chill and sawing drone and leads with edge into the dawn-rise shimmer of “Every Solstice & Equinox” which gains mantric drone power and sear; while “Nothing Of The City Touches The Earth” is a properly beautiful essay for harp, consonant drones patterning a landscape upon which pulsing electronics build and layer and breathe, edging through in clear song. It has an alt.folk quality, if anything. There’s the Morse-click of a sequencer rhythm in the bedrock.

“Thirteenth Century Travelogue” is a rapture of quasar pulsing, textured grind, falling across the ears. It’s spectral, ominous, wary, a sonic Mappa Mundi for a world part-populated by dragons and homunculi and people with mouths in their abdomen, and that’s portrayed in ever-shifting colours. A little further in, “Only Strings And Their Supports Remain” is also a journeying, a clockwork mechanism tick-tocking in violin and bass keystrokes, which speaks of the title. It makes you picture if not a hurrying, certainly a pressing need.

“There Is One Of Which You Never Speak” is a lament for strings and piano over a seductive, gathering blur which picks up real scorch and ferocity; “Despair Dialogue” lulls you with an opening passage that suggests it’s the most straightforwardly amniotic track on the album, but the lead melody rings out like Victorialand-era Cocteaus over a cauldron of just-muted crackle. It’s a bit Tim Hecker.

The final track, “Total Perspective Vortex”, moves away entirely from the canon of Calvino – though I’m willing to take corrections from somewhere better versed in his canon than myself – to another magical realist place entirely – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, within which world the vortex of the title is the ultimate, feared, weapon of mental duress. The incumbent is placed within what we’d now probably call a virtual reality model of the whole universe, within which is a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot bearing the legend: “You are here”.

And attempt to create that in sound it does, mightily; it bleeds in on sustain and a hum of voices with an edge; a drone spiritual. It deepens rather than builds, until genuinely eye-widening monoliths of fuzz guitar, bound outward from fuzz-psych and into Mudhoney, kick the doors open for crests of noise to tsunami in behind. It is, frankly, awesome; will be a hair-raiser live. And then, the turbulence is past, we’re into deep-space placidity, huge; you’re alone, out there … you are. Alone. And then that’s gone, too.

Invisible Cities is an intriguing and challenging accompaniment to a work of the same nature and qualities. It’s also a cracking album, which pushes on, is beautiful and textural and also genuinely rousing and thrilling in passages, and proves that A Winged Victory for the Sullen are not content to sit inside the pocket of modern composition to await their tribute from their courtiers; but wish to push onwards, much further onwards.

Womb music? Forget it.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s Invisible Cities will be released on February 26th on digital download, cassette, CD, trad black, limited clear and Dinked Edition limited transparent purple vinyl; pre-order your copy here.

Follow A Winged Victory for the Sullen at their website, on Facebook, on Twitter and on Instagram.

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