Loscil is the convergence of two memes that have had stellar years in 2016: Canadian ambient musicians, anchored by Tim Hecker and his album-of-the-year candidate Love Streams, and stage names inspired by program functions, joining San Francisco electropop newcomer SUMif in this regard. Loscil, born Scott Morgan, has taken influences for this album that run the full spectrum of the human condition. Composer Philip Glass, who has created some of the most life-affirming classical ambient music throughout his career (though Morgan’s stated that Glass’ score for the film Koyaanisqatsi is the most direct inspiration here), and philosopher John Gray, whose ideas The Guardian claimed are so “remorselessly, monstrously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope.” This is undoubtedly heady stuff, like the most effective electronic music is a soundtrack for considering the universe and your place in it. As the album title suggests, Monument Builders is also a tribute to those who have sought to make grand artistic statements in their medium of choice, and Morgan subverts this concept by adhering to a minimalist script.
The most famous cautionary tale of lasting impact is, of course, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, a poem whose contemporary influence can be found in last year’s stellar “Sapokanikan” from Joanna Newsom’s Divers to the mythos of Breaking Bad, one of the most popular and acclaimed television shows of all time. But what neither of these adopters acknowledges, and what is one of the subtlest points of the poem, is that you first have to build to have things be destroyed. On Monument Builders, Loscil spends little time building complex soundscapes in favor of using the music to soundtrack the world around. None of the seven tracks from the album engage with contemporary electronic tropes like mid-song beat switches or any sort of twinkling synths that hint at optimism. Rather, this album is the sonic equivalent of the scenery in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a desolate expanse with no clear beginning or end. Just look at some of the song titles — “Drained Lake”, “Straw Dogs” (a reference to one of Gray’s works); this is not an optimistic suite.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a compelling album. Like the celestial throbs of Roly Porter’s Third Law from earlier in the year, the drones of Monument Builders exude uncertainty and their few instrumental complements exist in the same sphere of a paranoid status quo. The funereal horns on “Anthropocene”, especially, invoke an explicit acknowledgment of the mortality we all face. This is nowhere near a happy album, but it feels like the logical endpoint the schizophrenic masterpiece Mutant by Arca began nearly a year ago — a sense of resignation, that the darkness has now become numbing.
But, as the album closes with “Weeds”, you hear the most prominent bout of vocals on the album, and with that, the uncertainty of the six tracks preceding it elicits a question of if that’s actually a permanent state. The voices intertwine and go higher and higher, matching the churning motion of the synths below. It’s a striking contrast with the rest of Monument Builders and one that is best appreciated by not taking it out of the context of the album itself. In a year of many impressive, and a few stellar, electronic-adjacent releases, Loscil hasn’t created an album that stands with the aforementioned Love Streams or Arca’s Soundcloud offering Entrañas, but of them all, this might be the one most indicative of how people feel.