Something looms on the horizon
Fostering unease is no new concept for musicians. Artists like Suicide and Scott Walker notably weaponized unease in their music, carving out whole spaces for experimental artists to push boundaries without breaking eardrums. But creating something uneasy and enjoyable is a completely different ballgame. As talented as the aforementioned artists are, they’re certainly not enjoyable to most people. Invisible Cities, the latest from A Winged Victory for the Sullen, however, is rather enjoyable. But each second of delight pairs with looming catastrophe. Something lurks on the outskirts of the city and prowls through the empty streets at dusk. It’s the fear that makes this special.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen are no strangers to the unorthodox. Like many neo-classical/ambient artists, they constantly add new sounds to their repertoire to help push them beyond the boundaries of their existing material. But few take that calling to the degree that A Winged Victory for the Sullen do. On this album, people hear everything from synths and strings to piano, choirs and glitched-out electronics. It’s a staggering companion piece to modern life.
Musically, the album is thrilling. Jumping from song to song, listeners clearly sense that this was composed as a soundtrack to a companion piece, but each song still functions on its own. Take, for instance, “Desires Are Already Memories.” This chilling track uses distant sounding choruses to evoke the specter of waking dreams. The subject of the track drives silently down an empty city corridor, one that they have traveled hundreds of times before, and contemplates the moments they spent in a struggle. The pensive pace of the track, along with the descriptive title, shows us that the struggle is the only memory the subject has, and they were too enraptured by it to enjoy the moments where they achieved their goal.
Complex narratives like this are bound into the DNA of this record. But it can just as easily be enjoyed passively. With the sole exception of “Total Perspective Vortex” and its overwhelming assault on the senses, most tracks quietly languish in the background of your life. “So That the City Can Begin To Exist” is somber and cool. It bristles with a quiet longing for something that could be but never has been. “The Dead Outnumber The Living” noisily calculates the immensity of the anguish that the past has wrought and will continue to wreak as the future becomes past. But it does this with extreme precision, deploying its most abrasive elements in the spine of the track’s bassy thrum. Even the ear-catching “The Divided City” could be a soundtrack to a particularly melancholic rainstorm of a day. Its piano notes connecting the raindrops to one another as they trace a path down your window. It’s a quiet place filled with potential, and there is always something so unsettling about the untold narratives that lurk within peaceful moments.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen has once again shown that they are one of the few bands capable of soundtracking the modern era. They may be the only classical adjacent band with any hope of doing it successfully. Of their projects, Invisible Cities may not shine the brightest, but it does invite the most contemplation. Even without its companion piece, there is so much here. Love, loss, pain, sadness, joy. Each second drips with all of these emotions and more, but none shimmer quite so brightly as fear or anticipation. Listen for it in the space between the notes; something is coming. Will you run from it? Will you embrace it? A Winged Victory for the Sullen provides no answers on Invisible Cities. They only broadcast the warning signs of something approaching.