As you’d expect from something on a label best known for releasing albums by such recondite acts as Godspeed You Black Emperor and Low, acts which aren’t especially interested in entertaining you, Clear Horizon is in no way easy listening. The band name conjures up an image of vast emptiness altogether appropriate for the sparse, expansive music collected here, reflected aptly as well in titles such as “Sunrise Drift”, “Watching the Sea”, and “Open Road”. As always with intellectualized non-rock, the emphasis is on aural Rorschach blots of droning hums and long-ringing notes, in which the listener is expected to find something redeemingly meditative in the blankness. This faith in the listener’s patience and concentration is admirable—anything that demands something active from a consumer ought to be applauded—but it does run counter to the way most Americans use music: as a breezy soundtrack to their lives, a kind of theme music that plays in their heads as they make entrances, or as a way of signaling their membership to a certain subculture; or in other words, as the raw material in which they can find a aggrandized sense of themselves while being distracted from how they’re actually situated. But Clear Horizon does not make such music: their difficult, alien music won’t permit a listener to believe it’s somehow about him, that it’s merely an expression of emotions or a listener’s pre-existing feelings and prejudices. It aspires instead, at the very least, to instill new emotions, to force listeners to react and respect something that is radically, irresolvably other.
Jessica Bailiff, who has already made three albums of similarly abstruse, ethereal music for Kranky, and English musician David Pearce sent tapes back and forth across the Atlantic for two years to make these forbidding, largely funereal compositions, awash in tidal sweeps of white noise, augmented by what sounds like recordings of ailing engine squeals, creaks, and whines played back at a hallucinatorily slow speed. In some ways, the unorthodox method by which the album was produced demands that its music be all about that process, the careful accretion of sounds the tape exchange fostered, the long delays between periods of work, the fragility of captured sound as it passes across great distances, the loneliness and difficulty of crypto-collaboration. The tape hiss that threatens to subsume many of the songs is not simply a by-product but an essential theme; it is form as content. The same is true of the many long fade-ins, which make up microcosms of the experience of the gradual, the pointed opposite of the instant gratification we’re accustomed to.
The songs break down into a few categories. Some—“Watching the Sea” and “For Days”—emphasize an acoustic guitar plaintively strummed, joined with Bailiff’s voice, redolent with airplane-hangar echo. One might call these songs “folky” based on the instrumentation, but they have nothing really in common with folk music, which ties into traditional melodies and typically tries to express something specific through its lyrics. There is no melody here, and no audible lyrics on any songs. Words are discernible only in brief snatches, clarifying into evocative refrigerator-magnet-poetry phrases before dissolving into the murk again.
Other songs—“Dusk”, “Sunrise Drift”—stress the ambient noise: chimes, clarions, the sound of wind. These feel shapeless and random, not quite meeting the minimum requirement to be called music. These tracks are long—when there’s no rhythm or structure, it must be hard to know when to stop, or why—and these heavy blocks of time weigh the album down, obliterating the frail songs interspersed between them. And the last song on the album, “Open Road”, is oppressive in a different way: the reverb-soaked drumming makes it sound as though they’ve built a song around a tape of those idiots in the subway transfers who play trash can lids and empty buckets and water jugs. Since their aesthetic is based on concentration, it makes no sense to create a percussion track that utterly foils your ability to concentrate.
But on “Distortion Song”, they seem to find a workable balance between their two main approaches, managing to make the different parts work together to intensify one’s focus and the tension one feels simultaneously. Here, an acoustic guitar cycles through a series of notes, their fixed melody contrasting perfectly the palpating, mesmerizing backdrop of noise seethes behind it, never coalescing into anything identifiable, anything that could be given notes. Bailiff’s lost voice here sounds like the liturgy to some obscure and austere church service; you can’t understand what it’s all about, but the cloistered solemnity is unmistakable and impressive. If nothing else, it will remind you how peaceful silence is, after it ends.