My main reason for pricking up the ears over the self-titled debut from A Winged Victory for the Sullen was specifically due to the participation of Adam Wiltzie, he who comprises one half of Austin, TX drone kingpins Stars of the Lid. I’ve been a fan of that duo for a long while now, with my appreciation spreading to previous Wiltzie “side-projects” like The Dead Texan and Windsor for the Derby. The other member of AWVftS is Dustin O’Halloran, and while I knew a little about Devics, the Los Angeles indie band where he works with vocalist Sara Lov, I was frankly clueless to the man’s solo output as pianist and film composer. Checking out O’Halloran’s first two plainly (you might even say Eno-esquely) titled records, 2004’s PIANO SOLOS and 2006’s PIANO SOLOS VOL. 2, I was pleasantly struck by the crisp, calm nature of his style, which fits snuggly into the genre of Classical, Modern. And yeah, that’s an awfully big corral of sometimes restless cats, so please let me elaborate; Dustin O’Halloran’s music possesses the same sort of quiet, relaxed intensity that’s absolutely perfect for rustic, backstreet antiquarian bookshops. Picture this, won’t you? While browsing the Fiction section’s pricey but pristine first edition hard-covers of Borges, Barth and Barthelme (aka the three Bs), the music’s unobtrusive assertiveness first catches the ear. Briefly the thought tangles on the tongue tip to ask from whence the music derives, but the college-aged counter clerk appears completely engrossed in a tattered copy of AGAINST INTERPRETATION and likely doesn’t want to be bothered. Shades of Arvo Pärt, Olivier Messiaen, and even Morton Feldman become briefly explicit, but the music swirling about the shelves of major volumes obviously doesn’t belong to the oeuvre of any of those heavyweight names. And yet it’s exactly that kind of sound, i.e. just right for taking the highly caffeinated, sleep-deprived edge off an extremely sunlit morning; it’s relaxing, yet possessive of a strong backbone. And that’s just O’Halloran’s first two records. I haven’t even heard all of his most recent, highly touted stuff (though 2010’s solo live VORLEBEN is after a half dozen listens proving to be a true killer), mainly because I’m sorta stuck on this A Winged Victory for the Sullen collab. Frankly, it’s proving a disc as strong as its name is wordy (which perhaps influenced my bookshop scenario up above, heh). My first impression upon sitting down with this record (and while not exclusively a “sit-down” [or “lie-down”] LP, I can’t imagine it appropriately connecting with non-stationary listeners without the aid of headphones) was that without hints I’d likely never guessed Wiltzie’s involvement. And yet the tangible difference in sound doesn’t register as disconnected from the general evolution of Stars of the Lid’s impressive dronescapes, mainly because SotL’s numerous flights of extendedness, while occasionally abrasive and agitated, were more often inclined toward spacious, relaxing and borderline ethereal motifs. Like the best of Stars of the Lid (and I should mention that Brian McBride is an equal part of that duo’s considerable success), A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN’s seven pieces lend themselves quite easily to the possibility of soundtracking the bold non-linearity of experimental film. But where movies employing SotL would ideally be projected onto a large wall during a hip, smoky gathering in some saucy boho’s loft, AWVftS feels far more suited for exhibition in a smart museum’s program of new film or even in the hallowed halls of academe. Indeed, during that first listen my thoughts did occasionally turn to Eno’s MUSIC FOR FILMS, a comparison still worthy of mention with the big caveat that while AWVftS’s music is pointed in the approximate direction of the ambient zone it never really gets there. Instead, it generally examines an appealing three-way split between gestures of ambient motion, the unique depth of feeling that’s sometimes achieved by chamber classical, and a string section driven post-rock sensibility that’s loosely related to groups like Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And this is cool since A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the nature of their moniker aside, smartly avoids repeating the melancholic bombast of those two bands. Again, the post-classical aura of O’Halloran’s piano really sets the tone here; while “We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced, For the Earth Had Circled the Sun Yet Another Year” (did I say something about wordy?) opens with a slow wash of tough string ache, by the one minute mark the piano has begun establishing that AWVftS is disinterested in reaching for emotional extremes in favor of cultivating an atmosphere of gentle, if occasionally tense and even sometimes subtly ominous beauty. But please don’t infer that fans of Sigur Rós and Godspeed won’t find AWVftS right up their alley. Anybody into the more un-rock side of post-rock should certainly queue this record up for inspection. Same goes for those into the more un-rock side of vintage Krautrock (say Cluster or Popul Vuh) or even Fripp and Eno’s EVENING STAR. ‘Tis true that my younger self would’ve surely derided A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN as so much New Age hoo-hah, but back in those days I was far more prone to making shortsighted and even inaccurate statements. Please don’t fall prey to the same mistake. Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran have crafted a fine and thoughtful debut album smartly co-released by the imprints Kranky (US) and Erased Tapes (UK). In fact, I can claim with confidence that it’s one of the best new records to hit my ear canals in all of 2011.
Gonna go uptown so I can get myself straight
Gonna go see my mama see if I got myself a date
Time is runnin’ out I’m comin’ right down to the wire
Gotta go do something to get myself higher
Lou Reed- “I’m Gonna Move Right In”