Will Wiesenfeld makes much of referring to his Geotic project as “passive listening”, in contrast to the more “active” material he produces as Baths. Abysma, Wiesenfeld’s latest Geotic release, incorporates the conventions of dance music into a more intimate, muted setting, overlaying hushed techno beats with washes of chilled-out synths. Though in another setting the beats might argue otherwise, this is indeed music better suited to sipping tea or getting a massage than it is to partying or even moving much at all. Abysma is undoubtedly a pleasant listen, but as with any music adorned with such an adjective, it runs the risk of leaving very little impression at all. Often, Wiesenfeld’s pieces have been smoothed over so completely that they lack personality altogether.
Not that the album is without its virtues. For its first half especially, Abysma avoids redundancy, tweaking the compositional elements of each track so that the particular beats and synths sound fresh even as they arrive at a similar overall sound palette. The downtempo, Moss of Aura-channeling “Sunspell” features a contemplative melody, lovely despite sounding a little too tailor-made for watching a sunrise or some other anodyne activity. “Billionth Remnant” introduces trancey synths and a steady, crisp rhythm, while “Nav” traffics more in the brainy chillout of Bonobo. For a time, Wiesenfeld is able to prevent the album from growing stagnant by ensuring that no track sounds exactly like the one before it, even if each simply demonstrates a different route to the same outcome.
The only ripples produced on the otherwise placid surface of Abysma come from Wiesenfeld’s vocals. His voice, which usually appears in the form of wordless chanting, has a wispy, elfin quality to it that adds some much-needed texture to the monochromatic landscapes of tracks like “Actually Smiling”. Pitch-shifted takes like those found on “Billionth Remnant” heighten the rare sense of idiosyncrasy, and for several brief moments, it sounds like Wiesenfeld is taking risks.
“Laura Corporeal” serves both as the album’s literal midpoint and its conceptual apex. While there are many nice melodies to be found all over Abysma, “Laura” features a thick, sticky synth-bass line in one of the few truly memorable and even catchy moments. Married to Wiesenfeld’s characteristic chanting, the track represents the best of what the album has to offer.
After this point, however, things start to go downhill. It is as if Wiesenfeld could only keep up the Geotic ruse for so long, and eventually, the monotony of Abysma catches up with it. By the time “Vaulted Ceiling, Painted Sky” arrives, the sheen of the music has worn off entirely. Suddenly the beats have an automatic, press-play quality to them, artificially propping up the otherwise inert productions. The penultimate “Perish Song” is the worst offender of all; at seven minutes in length, it is an exhausting exercise arriving at precisely the moment when the listener may not be able to take the album’s tepid blandness any longer. The song’s loungey piano has a social, genteel quality to it that nonetheless lacks all energy, like the soundtrack to a dinner party where everyone is sipping on water. Wiesenfeld offers his most lyrical and straightforward vocals here, but even these manage to sound mopey without actually emoting, at least not in a way that justifies the track’s indulgences.
With Abysma, Wiesenfeld certainly succeeds in setting a peaceful and quietly euphoric mood, at least for a time. The mood he constructs ultimately proves facile and a little hollow, however. Illusion can be a powerful tool in music, but only if it can withstand prolonged scrutiny and exploration while remaining intact. Not so with Abysma, which unravels after several takes. Though the album postures itself as relaxed and expansive, it also comes across as somewhat rigid, clinging to its own limitations and obstructing examination from all but a few angles.