More than a soundtrack
Orchestral music has always been woefully difficult for the current generation to get a read on. An unfortunate result of years of 80s power rock bands, and even much of post Beatles pop, forcing us to reject the meandering lengthy song structures present in most orchestral music. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the Internet finally started to connect musicians and niche audiences, creating a revival of nearly every genre while allowing many genres to break from traditions and blend with others in new and engaging ways. One of the strongest beneficiaries of this phenomenon is Jherek Bischoff whose latest work Cistern manages to blend the engaging short song arcs of post rock while still creating appealing orchestral soundscapes.
The opening track “Automatism” punches in with a pounding drum and middle pitched strings carve across the atmosphere of the track. Around the halfway point, the piano takes on a slightly more playful tone, like something heard in a village spring festival. The music progresses almost carnival like in its whimsy until the end of the track. One of the more creative pieces on the album, “Cas(s)iopeia” opens with some electronic or sampled sound that creates an engaging atmosphere of mystery that continues to surround the track. Even as the more traditional instruments come in, there is a sense that something unknown lingers in the background of the forest this track paints, playing around in the thicket hidden by morning fog. The first sense of major discovery or struggle on the album is clearly felt on the track “Headless.” The track mostly follows standard conventions of atmospheric music, in fact most of it is rather unremarkable in comparison to much of the rest of the album. It isn’t until a little after halfway through the track that the piano swells and the beat of a heavy drum rumbles off in the distance, drawing the listener into a powerful swell within the final minute of the song. Each note is possessed with a lightness of youth and wonder, the track sounds like flying for the first time, soaring above mountains and across oceans, but much like a dream of flying, it is over as soon as it begins.
The album does suffer a bit over the next two tracks, both feel somewhat unnecessary. However, “Attuna” does show moments of the deliberate clarity and vision that has lenses itself so well to the rest of the album. After this slight lull, we are introduced to one of the clearest stand-outs on the album, “The Wolf.” The track immediately stands out as wildly menacing, almost evil at times. It’s the sort of song you don’t want to play when you’re alone at night. The shrill strings and plodding pace of the bass and percussion call to mind images of dark figures crossing cameras in hallways, and eyeless monstrosities peering in through windows on a frigid night. The track increases in intensity, sounding at once like a chase scene more than the deliberate slow horror of before, then it exits suddenly, it’s disappearance punctuated by shrill bursts of violin. The title track “Cistern” opts for a more traditional structure, the somber swells immediately invoke images of a funeral pyre, a ritual send away of some great hero. The tone is triumphant but weary, like the return of a general from some great war. The crescendo grows more urgent but never truly grips a feeling of satisfaction, always feeling like something far too great was lost. The closing track “The Sea’s Son” is one of the songs that is most easily compared to post rock, the orchestra is slow and meandering, large swells like massive rolling waves rocking a trans Atlantic voyage punctuate an ethereal foggy atmosphere within the song. A little past the halfway mark, the brass section begins to join in, leading to a more intensive feeling, home is getting further away and the swells grow larger with each passing minute but the listener is left feeling like there is something worth chasing out on the horizon, no matter how far away it takes them.
Perhaps then the strongest praise that can be given to Cistern is its constant unwillingness to feel like a soundtrack. Far too often, modern orchestral music is lumped into the category of “background noise in a film,” but Cistern seems almost possessed by a spirit of independence that pushes it into a solitary lane. Nearly every track feels deliberate, each swell is engaging, at times even life affirming, and each lull seduces you into the warm dewy valleys of a lush soundscape. In a time where DJ’s and bands are becoming ever more suitable methods of creating a movie soundtrack, maybe Cistern is orchestral music proving its ability to make a suitable album, free of any visual context or narrative, beautiful in its own execution.