[22 November 2009]
It’s hard to describe Brock Van Wey’s gorgeous White Clouds Drift on and On without resorting to overly expressionistic language. I must have written the word “immersive” a dozen or so times in my notes while listening to the album, but it bears repeating. This is an album that pulls you out of wherever you are and takes you to a better place. I know because I was in a pretty bad place the last time I put it on the earbuds, and its anodyne pleasures sank my troubled mind like a stone.
With a string of releases on his Quietus imprint, former American expatriate turned Chinese expatriate Brock Van Wey has been making waves, and shoring tides, with a string of handmade ambient CD-R releases as Bvdub. Contrary to popular belief, Bvdub’s namesake has nothing to do with dub music, but is merely shorthand for Brock Van Wey’s initials (B-V-Double U). A student of classical piano and classical violin, Van Wey fell in love with the utopian possibilites of rave, became disgusted with the scene by the turn of the millennium, sold all his records to move to China, and returned with a new sense of purpose. Van Wey works mainly in broad strokes rather than microscopic details, and this is true even of the thematic content of his works. One of Bvdub’s two 2009 releases was called To Live and consisted of a single 20 minute track about “what it means to live”.
This makes Van Wey’s debut LP under his own name a bizarre choice for Echospace, whose releases thus far mainly amount to Claude Von Stroke, Model 500 remixes, and a variety of projects for founder Stephen Hitchell and his frequent partner Rod Modell. Once you hear Hitchell’s interpretative “shapes” of White Clouds Drift on and On as Intrusion, though, it all begins to make sense. Not so much a bonus disc as a Rashomon-style alternative perspective, Hitchell reimagines each song through his own impassioned dubscape and winds up participating in what may be the best of both his and Van Wey’s career.
Like much of Van Wey’s work, the pieces on White Clouds Drift on and On are insouciantly unconcerned with the flustered precipitance of time. Tracks are allowed to saunter as if there’s no edge of the earth to fall off of. They’re not like us, these songs. The album’s labilities are welcomed as outgrowths rather than separations, emotional variances adaptive and augmentative rather than erratic and autistic. The rigid structure of the dinosaur CD format is infamously negligent to the demands of the dreamy wanderer, but Van Wey’s pastoral sonic cotton fields feel appropriately bridled by its 78-minute mark.
Opening track “Too Little Too Late” will represent perhaps the most antagonizing moment for listeners, but not because of its tensions. In fact, exactly the opposite. It’s precisely the soothing nature of the lush billowing strings and bubbly pianos, which recall so much loathed new age music, that threaten to allow the listener’s preconceptions get the best of him. But as the ethereal hues that colored both Enya and the Cocteau Twins begin to swell, and meditative breathing patterns emerge, it becomes apparent through the seagulls squealing like tortured birds of purgatory that this is merely romantic scenery standing in for an explosive interiority. Van Wey is unafraid of melodrama, to be sure, but he paints the scene with the psychological complexity of a Douglas Sirk film.
“I Knew Happiness Once” graphs a series of two chord dyads that interplay amidst an interspace filled by pennaceous floating drone textures. Vocals do not arrive until seven minutes have passed and the tenor of the sound has risen to that of a persistent bellow, but those voices swoop in like a flock of birds before a child-like chant gives the elegiac ambiance a wholly new sensation.
The delayed appearance of human voice is common to most of Van Wey ‘s pieces, though the vocal affect is largely absent on the Intrusion disc. Intrusion swaps vocals for beats. Van Wey, meanwhile, refuses even the semblance of percussion. Rhythm does emerge, however, in the ecological trance of Van Wey’s reverberating feedback, and notably in the damaged memory loop that kicks off “A Gentle Hand to Hold”. In fact, the only low points on Van Wey’s disc are when you get lost in the drift and stumble into the oblivion of noise, such as on “A Chance to Start Over”, where a messy gossamer cacophony staggers the mix a bit before being rescued by an restorative vocal uplift.
The 24 minutes of Intrusion’s take on “White Clouds Drift on and On” takes several minutes to even find a suitable pitch to work from, and then proceeds to wander about as if trying to return from a thorazine haze. Its beat sets in subcutaneously, like a biological clock setting the track in motion. After the intense blankets of emotion draped on the listener by Van Wey’s disc, Intrusion’s aimless stoic gait is shocking, but he eventually lets his soul purge with an existential hymnal easily as emotionally resonant as Van Wey’s disc one.
Heavily phased and restrained conga drums and simple chord changes define the Intrusion version, “Shape III”, of “A Gentle Hand to Hold”, and its sense of sensory loss sends shivers down the listener’s back. “I Knew Happiness Once (Shape V)” is like a nature film for the unconscious, uncertainty creeping by with no unease. “Too Little Too Late (Shape VI)” is gloriously forlorn and ends the compendium right.
White Clouds Drift on and On is a fabulous blizzard of reflective melancholy and incipient recovery, both gentle and profound, nomadic and acute, distanced and familiar. Its duller moments are well worth enduring to discover the parochial zeniths just around the bend. It’s a rare feat of depth and beauty in a year scarce with either, says this listener, who owes Van Wey and Hitchell for his current lack of despondent funk.