The music of the Sight Below is unusually visual. On “Shimmer”, ominous vapors of stringed instruments swirl upwards like espaliers from the depths of a ravine, and we’re looking at them on the edge of a precipice, from above. On “Through the Gaps in the Land”, we can see the weather, chunks of water falling from a stormy sky and landing on verdant terrain. As the song’s kick-drum propels us from one peak to the next, I can visualize the colors of the earth—brilliant green, marbled purple and grey—rushing past my field of vision as if I’m being sucked into a vortex. When it’s conceptualized and executed like this, ambient music has tremendous power. And if the scenes aren’t the same for you as they are for me, to quote eminent techno scribe Philip Sherburne, “I promise you that you will see something.”
Sensual, propulsive, and shrouded in mercurial darkness, It All Falls Apart is a solid summation of the next level of “Gas”-eous ambient, a dreadful and utterly immersive environment unto itself. It’s a parallel universe to Rafael Anton Irisarri’s native Pacific Northwest, the excursion not unlike zooming through rain and redwood trees in a gorgeous nightmare. Irisarri’s ability to make evocative music is both a gift and a learned skill. Mislabeled as a recluse and even as anonymous, he’s more like an honor roll student operating under the radar, boning up on a wealth of music in the ambient/shoegaze tradition and using it as an inspiration by which to push himself. His career is a subtly restless breeding ground of experiments; he goes largely acoustic for his eponymous work, and the club track “Murmur” and its companion “Wishing Me Asleep” were subtle but assured advancements from his Sight Below debut, Glider. This time out, Irisarri has made the best album of his career, showing the next generation of ambient techno producers—in his own modest way—how it’s done.
It All Falls Apart has the air of a smart record, shaped and packaged in an economical format with the listener’s tolerance in mind. With respect to Glider, it’s also a more complex one. This is not an accident. Far more instruments complement his guitars here, though the record is far from a symphony orchestra; the extra components add more layers and greater depth to his rich, essential sound. And then, there is his famous collaborator to consider. Irisarri’s secret weapon is his affiliation with musicians from across genre lines. The Field’s Axel Willner may have Wolfgang Voigt’s blessing, but Irisarri nabbed Slowdive’s Simon Scott to act as a kind of spiritual advisor through the writing process. The result is what Slowdive might have released post-Pygmalion if they’d lived to see the 2000s and diverted from post-rock to follow an ambient techno pied piper. It has the billowy sweep of Souvlaki at its most romantic, veined with branches of black.
Yet for all the record’s dimensionality and coloration, the key to its appeal is motion. The songs seem to move at the speed of an Indy 500 driver and at zero miles per hour simultaneously, velocity and stillness pushing against each other in a way the listener can feel and visualize. Only two of its seven tracks feature a kick-drum to set the pace; the rest run along an implied current. The first two songs, both beatless, are two phases of the same plunge, the scenery changing as it whooshes past. By the third track, the drums have arrived to add an audible heart thump to the journey. Placed strategically back-to-back in the sequence, the rhythmic songs sound like moody twins with differing temperaments and mannerisms. Tiny movements become as grand as the overall motion. In “Through the Gaps in the Land”, the guitar’s long, quavering high note hits the body like a sustained gasp, while the pitch-shifts in “Burn Me Out from the Inside” are lump-in-the-throat reactions to emotional stimuli.
Most notorious, tactile, and surprisingly successful is the Sight Below’s first vocal track: a cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades”, where a spooked Jesy Fortino (of Tiny Vipers) fights impossibly against violent gusts of wind. Fortino becomes the affective center of the record because she’s the only person in it, though she sounds disembodied, as if the flesh has been blasted off. No matter; Joy Division’s lyrics, repurposed for this occasion, speak genuinely to Irrisari’s modus operandi that made It All Falls Apart a winner: “A change of speed, a change of style / A change of scene, with no regrets.” Exactly.