Album Review: Adam Wiltzie – ‘Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal’: The composer of definitive ambient music provides an album for your deeper thoughts.

The Breakdown

This album yet again shows that Wiltzie can magically create music that looks beyond the hypnotic, it searches out new spaces for the listener.
Kranky 9.0

You sometimes get the feeling American composer Adam Wiltzie, despite instigating so much proclaimed ambient classical music for the last three decades, prefers the shadows to the spotlight. Whether intentional or not, Wiltzie’s key artistic contributions have usually been as part of a prolific partnership. Firstly he formed the seminal Stars Of The Lid with the late Brian McBride, a duo which from 1995 to 2007 consistently redrew the boundaries of new minimalism, and more recently he’s worked with pianist Dustin O’Halloran in A Winged Victory For The Sullen. Then alongside these major projects there’s been other inspired collaborations with Christine Vantzou (as The Dead Texans) and Chantal Acda (with Sleepingdog) plus significant work as sound engineer/band member with Sparklehorse, LaBradford, Flaming Lips and more.

So maybe time carved for singular projects has been at a premium. ‘Travels In Constants Volume 24’ appeared in 2015, followed by a couple of soundtrack compositions for ‘Solero’ in 2016 and ‘American Woman’ three years later but generally releases with Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie’s name on the cover are occasional. So, the emergence of his fourth designated solo work, ‘Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal’ (out via Kranky) is an event that warrants more than a cursory listen.

The circumstances and intention which inspired the album adds to the intrigue. Wiltzie, a Belgian resident having moved to Europe from Austin some years back, more recently left Brussels for rural Flanders and it’s the expanse of these new surroundings merged with their eerie isolation which seems to frame this new music. Wiltzie has also been affected by persistent dreams during which he recalls “if someone listened to the music I created, then they would die.” That may sound despairingly dark but as those who know Wiltzie’s achingly beautiful work, his soundscapes flow between suspension and expression, stillness and lift. ‘Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal’ probes beyond the edge of landscapes and the horizon of endless sleep.

The extended opening piece Buried At Westwood Memorial Park, In An Unmarked Grave, To The Left Of Walter Matthau captures that sense of place with a reverential stillness. Wiltzie sculpts the fugue form down to its most minimal, layering extended single string notes to make the most delicate harmonies and creating a frictionless sonic swell that midway through almost disappears. The periodic chime, a LaBradford-esque guitar twang and the hiss of radio static make for deftly placed punctuations in the drone. Here is a homage to the celebrity cemetery in LA without pomp or ceremony which guides your thoughts towards what such a place might mean.

The live orchestral timbres, which are central to the impact of the first track, are embroidered into the musical imagery of ‘Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal’. The strings bring vastness and vibrancy to Pelagic Swell, as the restless arpeggios wrestle up from the monotone while on As Above So Below an emotive melody develops with a subtle suggestion of the filmic but without any excess drama. Wiltzie’s acoustic arrangements on the album are not flamboyant but they are always persuasive.

As well as these tangible orchestrations, other tracks follow a more abstract and electronic pathway. Tissue of Lies floats imperceptibly from calm to tension, from rich toned hum to groaning decline, heart-string guitar chimes to shivering harmonics. That pin point instrumental detailing also pricks through on Stock Horror, where the more restless wave forms ebb and flow then merge into the heart-rending call of a trumpet. Some curdling electronic disorientation closes the piece in a rare moment of abrasive shift. The tuned hiss and stately paced procession of Mexican Helium which blends into the throbbing cavernous chorale of We Were Vapourised underline Wiltzie’s enduring brilliance at creating maximalist soundscapes from the most minimal variations. On ‘Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal’ he certainly furthers his reputation as a musician who works with a Rothko-like application.

As for the album’s title and indication of some inherent meaning, it’s worth remembering that Stars Of the Lid regularly took the ironic approach to this conundrum (‘The Tired Sounds of Stars Of The Lid’, ‘When the Detail lost its Freedom’, ‘And Their Refinement of Their Decline’ etc). There may also be some historic referencing going on here, back to the duo’s first release ‘Music For Nitrous Oxide’. Adam Wiltzie has offered some brief, characteristically honest insight saying “When you are sitting face forward on the daily emotional meat grinder of life, I always wished I could have some (Sodium Pentothal), so I could just fall asleep automatically and the feeling would not be there anymore.

After engaging with the music of ‘Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal’ the connection between this dedication and the pieces it inspired becomes clearer. These vignettes seem to imagine the anaesthetic drift between consciousness and the withdrawal to sleep, the peace but also the disconnection which that shift can bring. Maybe there’s a nod to a fugue state here? Certainly there are moments where the music is abruptly vivid. On (Don’t Go Back To) Boogerville when the cawing cello groans or with the childlike chimes of Dim Hopes, it’s as if memories are suddenly awoken.

Above all though this album yet again shows that Wiltzie can magically create music that looks beyond the hypnotic, it searches out new spaces for the listener. ‘Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal’ provides the gentlest catalyst that allows you not to switch off but to drift a little deeper.

Get your copy of ‘Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal‘ from your local record store or direct from Kranky HERE

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