Available on: Dekorder LP
Robert Aickman, Britain’s finest ever writer of weird fiction, still languishes in relative obscurity. Aickman at his finest evokes a powerful sense of unease by unravelling the weird event – in nearly every one of his subtly disorientating stories something extremely strange happens to, or is experienced by a central protagonist that is never fully revealed to the reader. Actually, to qualify this, it’s not even that the event itself is hidden from view – it almost never is – but rather that the situation that suddenly transpires is so peculiar as to defy all logic and sense with no further explanation given; we never know quite understand what it is that has happened and what it means both existentially and narratively. Reality is brutally, briefly, shockingly interrupted but unlike Lovecraft’s madness-stricken heroes, Aickman’s poor souls immediately slip back into their usually melancholy mundane lives, duty-bound to eke out their long empty days in sombre recollection of the inexplicable. Crossing The Pass, By Torchlight, the sixth long-player by Ensemble Economique is the remarkable sonic equivalent of Aickman’s weird events.
Based in rainy Northwest California, as one half of improv fiends Starving Weirdos and solitary instigator of Ensemble Economique, we can at least enjoy Brian Pyle’s canny semantic wiles before we even begin to look at the sounds therein. Although he has been releasing music on a variety of labels for a few years now, it was with 2010’s supremely creeped-out slasher-flickesque Psychical, issued on Not Not Fun, that brought Ensemble Economique to wider attention. Crossing the Pass, By Torchlight is the follow-up to that album, released on Marc Richter’s (Black to Comm) magnificent Dekorder label, and is Pyle’s significantly finest work to date.
Utilising a minimal arsenal of ’80s style synths and drum loops, occasional vocal samples, drones and processed noise, Ensemble Economique’s music feels extremely cinematic in nature; not in that ubiquitous soundtrack-to-a-movie-that-doesn’t-exist way (as if that’s not the effect of most music anyway), but more in its strong narrative flow, its choice of sonic tropes and widescreen atmospheres, and primarily because these extended pieces feel like they are about something. Each piece is a single moment stretched to infinity, seemingly capturing the time around the kind of revelatory strange occurrence so obsessed over by Aickman – like witnessing something that is either unfolding or about to, in extreme slow motion. The “progression” (if such a thing exists) from Psychical to this new album is to allow more space (a reduction in the previously prominent fuzzy synth tones), more colour and less overt menace, which in turn has allowed a more wide-eyed and melancholy tone to breath in the muggy night.
Crossing The Pass generally slips between two different kinds of mood, exemplified by Hilary Pecis’ sublimely appropriate front-cover collage. The first of these is a kind of revelatory anxiety: the moment where reality’s carpet is ripped out from underneath, and a moment of unanticipated change that you can’t quite grasp. This is best exemplified on ‘Heat Waves’ and ‘Somewhere, Anywhere’ where the atmosphere is all pending dread and unwanted anticipation. The second mood is more reflective; an after-the-world-has-changed melancholia represented by Pyle’s most affecting pieces to date: ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘To Feel the Night as It Really Is’ (check that title for a reality breakthrough/ breakdown manifesto). In the former a lonely beacon of Morse Code slowly strobes over a minor-key washes of sound, while ‘To Feel the Night’ sees tumbling drums, Morricone guitar, cello, flute and forlorn organ paint a landscape that is paradoxically wide-eyed and hopeless, its sense of wonder becoming increasingly harrowing as spectral clouds of processed noise come floating in and out of earshot.
Anybody who caught Brian live last year will now be wondering about the next tantalising step for Ensemble Economique, having seen him essentially reworked these pieces into actual songs, thrown into a new dimension with his own soaring searing emotive vocals. But for now we have Crossing The Pass, By Torchlight, a magnificently eerie, compelling and beautiful landscape to roam around, an eloquent exploration of the beauty, terror and unknowability of the world.