Available on: Mexican Summer
It can be all too easy to take an artist like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma for granted. Like contemporaries such as Liz Harris, his collaborator on the Raum drone project, or Pete Swanson, to whom he dedicated ‘Distant Star’ from Shining Skull Breath, Cantu-Ledesma is endlessly prolific, with several cassettes, LPs, CDrs and DVD collaborations with the visual artist Paul Clipson to his name. Yet it would be amiss to pretend that they all reach the same levels of quality; quite often, a release such as last year’s Eternal Spring will riff on the same theme or sonic palette for the length of an LP, containing the occasional gem but serving more as an extended single piece or document of a specific time than a fleshed-out work proper. A Year With 13 Moons is not one of those works, despite being recorded live with very few overdubs on one reel-to-reel tape recorder. Instead, it’s arguably his finest work since Shining Skull Breath, a dense collection of pieces that tap into a profound emotional core without ever being cloying.
Part of that is down to Cantu-Ledesma’s uncanny knack for bridging the gulf between the imagination and concrete experience. Presented as a companion to his 2010 Type LP Love Is A Stream, though in fact a more fully realised record, 13 Moons is concerned with memory and lost love, as track titles such as ‘The Last Time I Saw Your Face’, ‘Love After Love’ and ‘Remembering’ attest. In fact, as Cantu-Ledesma said in our interview, 13 Moons was recorded in the wake of a disintegrating marriage. As such, titles are generally more overtly concerned with emotion than many earlier works (compare, for instance, ‘Remembering’, ‘Remains’ or ‘Disappear’ with the evocative yet figurative track names ‘White Blossoms’, ‘The Radiant Tree’ or ‘Night Ashes’, from Visiting This World), giving some indication as to the LP’s prevailing moods of memory and longing.
That said, ambiguity offsets any thematic straightforwardness. Presumably the album is intended to correspond to a chronological arc, especially given its name and track titles such as ‘Early Autumn’ and ‘At The End of Spring’. In truth, although to my ears the album is beautifully sequenced – the transition from murky drones and submerged, ominous tones on ‘Interiors’ to the soaring melody and coruscating textures of ‘Pale Flower’ is particularly masterful – I can’t quite map this envisioned timeframe onto the album. It hardly matters when the atmospheres are so expertly conjured. Perhaps that is the point. As the “year with thirteen moons” itself is a play on the chasm between the real and the imagined, so the significance of these chronological markers can resonate personally with each individual listener. This is likely intentional, as Cantu-Ledesma states in the text accompanying the release that he is keen to translate “the fog of images, people and places” into “a body of work that could… leave space for the listener to enter.”
On this count, he succeeds. Pieces such as ‘Disappear’ and ‘At The End of Spring’ more closely resemble Songs of Forgiveness, a 2014 cassette release on Baro Records that paid warped homage to shoegaze and ’80s pop than anything on Love Is A Stream. Such retro stylings are entirely of a piece with 13 Moons’ themes of longing and memory, and although Cantu-Ledesma denies in our interview that they are nostalgic per se, their Cocteau Twins-style haziness demonstrates the opposite. At first pieces such as these seem incongruous alongside gloomier tracks, but taken with the album as a whole they work to contribute to its lovelorn mood. On ‘Disappear’, one of the LP’s sparser tracks, a lonesome synth motif and loping backbeat – itself a rarity in Cantu-Ledesma’s frequently drumless music – deliberately go nowhere, looping and building in intensity almost imperceptibly before dispersing like the fragment of a barely recalled memory.
Despite its central theme, A Year With 13 Moons is an expansive and varied record. On the quieter end of the spectrum is the stunning short piece ‘A Portrait Of You At Nico’s Grave, Grunewald, Berlin (For Bill. K)’. Consisting of little more than swirling feathery drones, its segue into ‘Remembering’, at first similarly out of focus then pierced with stabs of harsh noise, is beautifully executed. Grittier and harsher yet is ‘Görlitzer Park’, whose guitar drones and thick blanket of tape noise crescendo dramatically, offering not a payoff but dissolution into the melodic ‘Along the Isar’, a track that sounds like ‘80s pop half-exhumed from decades of mulch.
Even though all the tracks barring the opener are mostly under three minutes long and Cantu-Ledesma provides little in the way of dramatic peaks, preferring instead to let one piece dissolve into the next, 13 Moons never feels fragmented or incomplete. As such, its individual pieces function well as both standalone works and as a gestalt for the whole, so that the closing track ‘Remains’, easily the most intense on the album, works beautifully as a bleakly ambiguous climax as it opens with a low-end rumble and ends in a jarring cacophony of noise.
Thanks to Cantu-Ledesma’s forays into melody and rhythm, and flair for counterpointing gloomy industrial grind and noise with their opposites, 13 Moons holds a broader appeal than some of his more abstract or challenging LPs. That said, there’s nothing particularly straightforward about the album, seeming as it does to obey a kind of uncertainty principle: just as one aspect or mood becomes definable, another becomes ever more difficult to pinpoint, and so the picture that emerges is both clear and ambiguous, and endlessly fascinating.