Sprawling, ambitious, and sonically sophisticated, Torn Hawk's Union and Return transplants German Romanticism into the digital age.
Torn Hawk, the pseudonym for multimedia-hoarding polymath Luke Wyatt, claims to have composed and recorded Union and Return entirely in his new Berlin home. Listening to the LP, this is a startling premise: for an album filled with such panoramically stretched-out songscapes, it seems impossible that it could have been born between four walls -- by a single person adrenalized by a flight of imagination. Yet this is exactly what happened, and the result is a collection of 11 lushly orchestrated electro-fantasy compositions that spin stories suited for some blockbuster adventure film series. Indeed, Union and Return feels like a work of real-time cartography, where the skyline-chasing expeditions of a group of wanderers are inscribed in sonic form, footstep by footstep, and offered to you as bite-size wayfaring experiences retrofitted for your tympanic membrane.
This sort of cinematic impulse has been an ingredient in Torn Hawk's aesthetic since 2014's Through Force of Will, yet never before has it felt this prominent and centralized. Everything here bears the vertiginous cinematographic character of Peter Jackson's establishing shots in The Lord of the Rings films; we watch as weathered, destination-bound hero-drifters traverse mountains, valleys, and cityscapes that dwarf and loom before them, that, at once, signal the insignificance of their quest and emphasize its world-changing importance.
In "Borderlands", this quest is a contemplative march away from home and into certain danger. The ponderous electronic washes, sinuous guitar, and stoic piano pulses all project a feeling of intense regret welded to an unshakeable certainty: these hero-drifters are scared, tremblingly so, sad to be leaving their families and unsure of what lies ahead, but they aren't dragging their feet. They have a destination before them, and reaching that destination -- a place fraught by wartime brutality or perhaps something more fantastical and insidious -- is far more important than any personal consideration they may have. "Borderlands" is the sound of them coming to this realization and making peace with it. It's the album's standout track, an emotionally complex, carefully textured electro-acoustic odyssey that, during certain instrumental bursts, engenders the sublime psychic experience of staring off into the distance and not just seeing a destination, but something inexpressible and infinite.
"Thornfield" and "The Archers", in comparison, seem to fly over battlefields that haven't yet witnessed any death -- natural vistas, that is, soon to be bloodied and torn to shreds by unnatural violence. Wyatt employs hanging-from-the-firmament choral dronings and sweeping orchestration, both synthetic and authentic, to capture this particular genus of soon-to-be ravaged beauty. However, if you want to listen to one these vistas in the midst of combat, turn to "Our Knives", which inflects Wyatt's wide-angled orchestral sound with an ominousness and temple-pounding urgency evocative of two armies running -- valiantly, but with a viscera-wrenching sense of dread -- headfirst into one another.
Wyatt attributes the stylistic ethos of Union and Return to an interest in Germany's 19th century Romantic movement. Specifically, he cites the disquieting, man-in-nature paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as a primary influence and, throughout the record, this influence makes itself known. In a track like "Feeling Is Law", you can hear the image of the Rückenfigur that pervaded so much of Friedrich's oeuvre, namely the figure of an individual portrayed from behind, a faceless figure, unmarked by distinguishing features, but who is clearly gazing out at the vastness of the world before him. The Rückenfigur, like the characters scattered throughout Union and Return, is enraptured by nature's sublimity -- overwhelmed by what he sees, awestruck and shaken to the core.
"Feeling Is Law" places the Rückenfigur in front of a storm-tossed pasture of dead and dying grass. Rumbling, nearly ceremonial drums suggest the threat of lightning, moody synthesizers pool and intersect like clouds before a downpour, and Wyatt's Rückenfigur stands back and beholds it all, a spectator being moved -- just like the legions of grass before him -- by the dictates of the wind. But then, at around the 2:50 mark, a shimmering piano motif takes centerstage and clears this storm away: the Rückenfigur now sees something else in the distance, a cityscape -- perhaps the futuristic metropolis on the album's cover, or perhaps the home he left years ago -- and he takes a step forward. This is how Wyatt departs from Friedrich's style, and why Union and Return impresses itself on you in the way it does: this isn't just an album about gazing out at landscapes from a static vantage point, it's about moving through them, triumphing over terrains and succumbing to tempests as an explorer as well as a spectator.