Aurore Rien: Telesthesia

[13 July 2003]

By David Antrobus

Aurore Rien don’t exist. Considering their name is French for “a beautiful nothing”, this may seem an entirely appropriate confirmation of the “rien” aspect of their name. Hey, not only that, but this 34-minute EP even makes a good case for the “aurore” part of the phrase, too.

But let’s back up. Aurore Rien don’t exist, simply because the Milwaukee-based band split for good (according to their label’s website) shortly after recording Telesthesia, all four members scattering to form or join other projects. Although they also self-released one earlier full-length (Sedative for the Celestial Blue), the band left behind more enigmatic questions than they did musically compelling answers.

Everything from the diaphanous French name, through the insubstantial “crystals-and-auras” titles of both releases, to the names of the actual tracks (and even the name of the record label itself) suggests an almost willful flirting with the fine line between ethereal and vacuous. When you are already being compared to a softer-edged Mogwai, or Godspeed You Black Emperor!, for instance, how much closer toward bland new age muzak can you glide without actually slipping over the edge? I mean, completely unsurprisingly, the CD cover features a blurry snapshot of a beach scene; wide blonde sands, gentle waves and cumulus galleons in the heavenly blue.

With such worrying portents, it needn’t have taken a psychic or a clairvoyant to divine an inauspicious fate for the band. However—and here’s the truly weird part—the reality is that Telesthesia is not only good enough in a vague way to transcend all those distracting omens, but actually good enough musically to suggest Aurore Rien’s dissolution was, if not a full blown tragedy, at least a very real and noteworthy shame.

The EP is comprised of four songs, all running longer than seven minutes each. Their impact is based largely around the layered and melodic guitar interplay between Chris Schafer and Grady Owens, but the equally dynamic contributions of (younger brother) Connor Owen’s fluid yet tensile drumming cannot be underestimated. Predominantly pitched in the high-end range, with a conspicuous absence of bass guitar (Schafer’s willowy vocals certainly don’t help, in this regard), one of those enigmatic questions referred to earlier remains frustratingly unanswered: how would the eventual addition of keyboard player Mike Ystad have balanced out their sound here (he arrived too late to contribute to the record)?

As it is, this serendipitous absence of depth helps to focus the overall sound through sheer necessity, while simultaneously alleviating any lazy accusations of over-derivative shoegazer/dronerock borrowings.

“Hindsight 20/20” weaves and winds its way around a languid, affable beat and ambient flitting hummingbird guitar figures (garish, sharp and quick as barely glimpsed knives), until Schafer’s raw, emotion-laden vocals begin to up the ante, and the guitars employ a shivery My Bloody Valentine flamenco fuzz as a springboard into more frantic remonstrations . . . before once again subsiding and revisiting the calm, elemental opening melodicism—innocence at least partially intact. Sheer ambient beauty fades into a hesitant backlit expectancy.

There’s a hint of Unforgettable Fire-era U2 about the opening to “Hearts Murmur Under Halogen Lights”, until the innovative rhythms start to grab a-hold and propel the song into something at once allied with, yet distinct from, older post-punk tropes. Loose, near-jazz beats underpin the melancholy vocals as the delay- and echo-laden guitars wheel and circle above. A subdued piano does accompany this increasingly gorgeous meandering (mid-period Cure is but a touchpoint, nothing more) like an intoxicated dance partner. It’s a sound like fireflies dancing, or moths endlessly circling some unattainable light, the sound of something too sure of its own precious rightness to ever anticipate its impending doom.

A strange sampled speech about the brutalities endured in mining communities presages the third song, “Breakaway, Sydney”, as if some actual painful past events are audacious enough to intrude on the safe, ambient present. It is as incongruous as it is strangely poignant. An ominous darkness shrouds this song, with Schafer’s repeated “breakaway now / breakaway” lamenting and keening like someone belatedly waking to urgency. Then, the largest wave finally breaks, and the song settles into a gentle, sad, ambient lull while albatross guitars yawp and wail in an increasingly alien simulacrum of cliff top cacophony, before the sampled speech resumes once more - a voice now redolent with extra nuanced layers of pain, passion and conviction, simply for having journeyed this far.

Ocean spray, gentle children at play, and a soft conversational voice opens “Sunsets, I Have Seen Too Many Without You”. Verging on easy listening, or hotel lobby ennui, this closing song initially ebbs and flows on a soporific aquamarine undercurrent, until it takes a hitching breath, retreats behind an increasingly more robust and confident layered guitar-and-drums segment, then starts to roil and gather like a tsunami in the south seas, all gorgeous hot blue clarity concealing something unspoken, unacknowledged, likely calamitous. But the tension is never released; the shifting sands of a gentle tide leave all such upheavals in their potential states.

All of which could provide the band its epitaph, really: the shifting sands of gentle tides left any upheavals in their potential states. Short of Aurore Rien reforming, we’ll never know to what degree those upheavals might have reconfigured and wrestled something new and great (or even astonishing) from such familiar oceanside components (and complacencies).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/aurorerien-telesthesia/