An album of beautiful contrasts from Brooklyn, Germany, and outer space.
Cloudland Canyon have found their moment. And it's always wonderful when such a moment comes completely out of the blue. Looking at their brief back catalogue, it'd be hard to predict it would have ever emerged from them.
Named very unceremoniously after a park the band passed while traveling in Georgia, Cloudland Canyon was the unlikely marriage of Brooklynite Kip Ulhorn and German auslander Simon Wojan, who met on a tour through Europe. Ulhorn has a history playing different strands of structured (albeit odd-timed) rock in the hyperliterate hardcore outfit the Red Scare and the slightly overhip Panthers. Wojan had small roles in various bands of all different persuasions, not the least of which being zany garage rockers King Khan and the Shrines.
While those bands exhibited experimental tinges, they pushed them to the margins. None of them sounded anything remotely like the noises found on the first Cloudland Canyon LP, Requiems der Natur 2002-2004. The latter half of that album title suggests that these pieces took two years to gestate, but most of the tracks feel like unfinished sketches desperately compiled to salvage them from the desktop recycle bin. Despite this, it was a vastly diverse brew of spacey folk and primitivist psychedelia produced in a charmingly lo-fi style that added an unintentional Ariel Pink style effect to the live mix that made the peaking horns of plenty in "Holy Canyon", for instance, sound positively vintage. The eternal dusk concoction of meandering wormwood feedback drones sometimes reached divine peaks, but something within their formlessness projected their output as more of an off-beat leisure activity than what many would call a “real” band (think Bardo Pond’s prolifically officiated jam times in Third Troll, Hash Jar Tempo, Prairie Dog Flesh).
After a couple of higher fidelity EPs (including a collaboration with Lichens) that fiddled semi-successfully with atmosphere, Cloudland Canyon have returned with Lie in Light, their most studio-friendly album yet. The better production values have only benefited the band, whose new crystal clear dynamics radiate in radical contrast to the murkiness of Requiems. Between that LP and Lie in Light, something seems to have snapped in the band. The seven new songs that comprise Lie in Light find Cloudland Canyon functioning as a single mammoth unit of sound, rather than an amalgamation of players and their individual tonal/atonal ideas.
It’s a hell of an album, though its Kranky association and Terrastock camouflage may potentially shroud the band behind the woozy bong smoke of other drugged out psych-rock bands in the crowded milieu. Luckily, Cloudland Canyon exercise what many of those peers lack: discretionary programming. Of those seven tunes, none arch over seven minutes and not a one bores or overcompensates with cluttered noise arrhythmia or redundant melodic minimalism (though those elements do come into play).
The album begins with a healthy slice of motorik groove that wears its intentions on its sleeves. Its title, “Krautwerk”, summons both Kraftwerk (mainly their pre-Ralf and Florian “werk”) and the entire genre of Krautrock, suggesting perhaps by the title’s latter half that it’s more of a “workout” than an organic composition. Listening to the track, you can picture Ulhorn and Wojan with charts and graphs as if they were trying to orchestrate the singular companion piece to Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler. Sure, it’s a derivative pastiche, but never before has this music been so streamlined into a simplified and, more importantly, quintessentially deferential consolidation of the music’s great ideas.
“Krautwerk” is unequivocally an homage to Neu!’s “Hallogallo”, but its bass-drum progression tags along the acolytes as well. Not only digital progeny like Trans Am, but the crunchy leather crew in Acid Mothers Temple, Warlocks, and Jesus and Mary Chain, whose metallurgy derives as much from Guru Guru and Amon Duul’s “poppy” side as Sabbath and Stones. Without attempting to rewrite the book, it sets up the preamble, the historical impetus, for the rest of the music to follow.
The rest of the album is a whole body trip with the bass amps turned all the way up, invigorating a sense of total power and movement within each of the song’s drones. The drones are the heavy fortification gluing the album’s gooey atmospheres together. Much like Sunn 0)), Boris and Growing, the soundquakes are guttural, tingling their way through the central nervous system and shaking the skin on the way up the cerebellum.
However, it’s also vocal music. Cloudland Canyon don't do vocals in the way Lichens do, as an esophageal layer to the deep, harmonic, meditative whole notes. They are sung. Apart from a few repeated lines like “you watch yourself get high” and “sometimes it’s hard to come home again”, the lyrics are so fuzzed out or displaced within the fullness of the sound that they may as well be in German (and they are in “Heme”) or Latin. Well tasteful, but obscured like irises staring directly at the sun. Rather, the lyrics are the wallpaper, the dripping, melting wallpaper peeled off your eyelids as that tab finally sinks in. Forget that, it’s just mindless repeated patterns. It’s the unusual nature of those shapes, namely their animated mobility, that makes them exhilarating.
“White Woman” is exactly this kind of mandala rock. The tantric sheen of the opening buzzing hums clash in Zen-like dissonance with out-jazz guitar freak-outs, equally evoking spiritual jazz and Spiritualized. The mantric vocals are eerily reminiscent of a looped recitation of the opening bars of Spiritualized’s “I Think I’m in Love” while the busy, billowing audial assault pierce and wail like “No God, Only Religion”. Rather than play it like one of Jason Pierce’s sermons, Cloudland take it Taoist and don’t let go of the melody all the way through, like a chant.
“White Woman” is followed by “You & I” which bristles the drums reluctantly back in as analogue-sounding synth specks ricochet over the canyon and through the clouds to grandmother’s house and back again until grandmother’s house is buried under a pool of erupting lava at exactly four minutes and 20 seconds in (coincidence, I’m sure). The drums drop their upbeat tempo and the song itself literally dissolves under the permeating sonic magma, which bleeds into the next track “Scheisse Schatzi, Auf Wiedersehen".
“Scheisse” is the wreckage of Pompeii, the apocalyptic aftermath of the eruption. You can almost imagine the vinyl or the CD sizzling. It recalls the “Popul Vuh” tracks on Flying Saucer Attack’s Rural Psychedelia album more than the grandiose fire and brimstone of Godspeed! You Black Emperor.
“Heme” forgoes reconstruction in lieu of establishing a tranquil alternative to the destruction. The alien insect noises and gurgling electronics immediately rectify and pacify the tension, leaving the listener in the solace of the interstellar tundra. If hypothetics allow us to hear Ashra’s New Age of Earth as an extraterrestrial enlightenment for our blue planet, “Heme” might just as well be our best foot forward to return the favor for the next carbon-based life form. Sweetly foreign and surreally lulling, it’s a moment worth finding. One sure to traverse the transcontinental divide. It reminds one of the oft-ignored fact that dreampop is always romantic escapism, promising a heaven incapable anywhere else.
Knowing this, it’s easier to understand that one discernible lyric in the final track, “Mothlight Part 1”: “Sometimes it’s hard to come home again." Don’t hate on the music’s false promises of eternity. Be flattered that you’ve been invited and don’t rush to go home.