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A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos

The duo’s impeccable, immovable second album was conceived as an original score for a dance performance.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen
Atomos
Kranky / Erased Tapes
2014-10-07

Wayne McGregor’s choreography can be unsettling in its unpredictability. In his dance piece, Atomos, the performers follow their own trajectories, ping-ponging off of one another, coming together briefly and then breaking apart again. They never seem to make the same move in exactly the same way twice, and the narrative of their motion is grounded in chaos. Indeed, they are like atoms colliding with one another.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen recorded their original score for Atomos in the summer of 2013 in Germany and Iceland. Iceland in particular seems an appropriate location for the birth of such a music that can at times be glacially monolithic and immovable. Initially, the vision of members of the Wayne McGregor Random Dance company fluttering amongst one another can feel out of sync from the slow tidal pull of the music behind it. It doesn’t take long, though, to see how if the dancers are the planetary bodies spinning on their elliptical paths, the music of Atomos is the celestial vapor that surrounds and envelops them, giving their portion of the universe its outline, if not quite its shape.

This is the second studio record for the duo of Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran. Being one half of a duo has worked out exceptionally well for Wiltzie, who for more than 20 years has been partners with Brian McBride in making classic-informed ambient music as Stars of the Lid. O’Halloran, pianist and composer of ambient-informed classical music, on the other hand, has in recent years worked largely under his name alone, though doing so with the help of a number of notable contributors. His most recent solo album, Lumiere, released in 2011, featured, among others, fellow composer Peter Broderick, and, naturally, Wiltzie. Lumiere featured some of O’Halloran’s most refined material to-date, with striking, instantly memorable pieces such as “We Move Lightly” and “Fragile N. 4” speaking to both his melodic ambition and maturing refinement. Though O’Halloran’s compositions are comparatively busier than the drone Wiltzie is renowned for, it must have surprised no one that their approaches would complement each other so naturally.

On record, it is the equal presence of O’Halloran’s piano that draws the most easily identifiable distinction between A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Stars of the Lid. The trick on A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s self-titled debut album – released in the same year as Lumiere — was that the opening song, “We Played Some Open Chords”, at first sounded pretty much like a Stars of the Lid song, but only long enough for listeners familiar with SOTL to be convinced they knew where things were headed. Then, one minute in, O’Halloran’s deep, resonant piano came in to provide density to the ethereal. With the first track of Atomos, “I”, that delay is extended by nearly five minutes, and, even after that, it really isn’t until “III” that the piano reclaims the same place of prominence.

Atomos is the creation of only two people, but the many contributing musicians on the album, along with the spaces it was recorded in, account for the album having a sound noticeably wider in scope than A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The five different cellists, two violinists, as well as a viola and modular synthesizer, are something like the electrons circling the core protons and neutrons of O’Halloran and Wiltzie. As its hour elapses, Atomos seems to gradually expand. With each successive Roman numeral — well, almost successive, as the liner notes address: “WHATEVER HAPPENED TO IV” – the movements don’t necessarily build momentum so much as they accumulate a sonic mass of inexorable gravity.

RATING 8 / 10
PopMatters