On his fourth album of 2014, Brock Van Wey presents a difficult but often moving eulogy for his beloved cat, and a fundraiser for feline disease research.
Bvdub has nothing to do with dub music, just to get that out of the way. It is derived from Brock Van Wey, an American who has been producing ambient techno music at a prolific rate since 2007. Tanto is his fourth 2014 release, following a pair of Bvdub albums and one released under his given name. It is also an album he surely wishes he was not given occasion to make.
Tanto is a chronicle of the events surrounding and following the death of Van Wey's
"brother in arms...and best friend", to use his words. Tanto died of a cruel, rare, and incurable disease and left Van Wey to navigate "the saddest, emptiest, most helpless days of my life". That Tanto was not a human but a cat will for most listeners be of little consequence in light of this dense, heartbroken, but also beautiful requiem. Significantly, though, Van Wey will donate all proceeds from the album to the UC-Davis Center for feline infectious peritonitis.
The album is in keeping with Van Wey's usual practice of assembling lengthy compositions. In this case there are half a dozen of them, only one of which clocks in at less than ten minutes. This is music that demands your time and, unlike much "ambient" techno, your attention as well. Strung together, the song six titles form a confessional narrative, Van Wey declaring, "I break all around you. You tell me to be strong as we remember a life of love. I pray to a godless sky, and I want to be as strong as you. But I am broken." This isn't the indulgent, wallowing type of self-pity you might expect from Trent Reznor or your favorite emo band, either. Tanto, each song recorded in one take on a separate day, is the sound of a man who has been totally, completely humbled.
The music, then, has a certain consoling effect to it. "I Break All Around You" could be referring to Van Wey's emotions and resolve, but it also could be referencing the music itself. Slow, glacial waves of synthesizer crash against an unseen shore and then recede, as bits of voices and an acoustic guitar circle around overhead. Eventually, electronic drums come crashing in, becoming louder and more martial until, exhausted, they quiet down once again.
It is heart-wrenching but cathartic, too, the soundtrack to a good cry when you need one in the worst way. This is a cycle that is repeated, more or less, on the ensuing five tracks. "You Tell Me to Be Strong" begins with those same synth swells, just a couple stark chords before the beat comes in. It all builds gradually and then subsides. "I Pray to A Godless Sky" is as stark as its title suggests. Here there are no beats, just a chorus of crestfallen angels sinking into a bed of synths and more disembodied voices.
In defiance of the general literary tradition, the catharsis comes at the beginning of Tanto, and is quickly overshadowed by darkness and despair. While this arrangement seems to reflect Van Wey's experience accurately, it makes for tough going for the listener. Diminishing returns combine with the suffocating atmosphere to make continuing to the end difficult. It's like reading a novel that becomes so wrapped up in tragedy you have to go back to the beginning just to get your bearings and catch your breath. Is doing so a cop out? No, not when modern technology makes the running order of an album all-too-easy to circumvent. But if you make it through the darkness at the center of Tanto, the comforting, ringing guitar arpeggio of "But I Am Broken" awaits as some sort of consolation, even if that, too, is eventually overwhelmed by swelling synths.
At times, the combined beauty and mass of Tanto makes it more shoegaze than anything. Whatever you call it, though, it's the sound of loss, with all the sadness, confusion, and strange beauty that implies.