A post-pandemic album that leaves room for hope
A lot of the past year’s pandemic-inspired experimental releases—like, say, Collapse Culture’s debut album—have leaned toward the dark, the bleak, the anxious. There’s definitely a bit of that on Virga II, the latest record from Matthew Cooper, better known as Eluvium, but the ambient musician also offers something a little different amidst the uncertainty: room for hope.
Virga II is a sequel to 2019’s Virga I, which, in Eluvium’s own words, acted as “a balm for many” during the COVID-19 pandemic. With this record, Cooper set out to take the fraught emotional conditions of 2020 and examine them in a way that wasn’t totally steeped in pessimism and despair. But Virga II isn’t saccharine. It still recognizes this despair while also acknowledging the potential for solace.
The opening track, “Hallucination I,” sounds like something off Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind—impenetrable, engulfing, almost tribal or ritualistic. For how atmospheric this piece is, it’s also strikingly minimal, with just the ominous rumble of a bassy synth, another synth, this one more ethereal and wavering, and an undercurrent of feedback that slowly grows more apparent as the track progresses. These components form a loop that’s sustained for over 13 minutes, with the occasional switch-up thrown in here and there to keep people from getting totally comfortable.
This is followed by “Scarlet Hunter,” which somehow manages to ramp up the anxiety with smoky textures and spectral synths that sound like human voices screaming from an abyss. The previous track was menacing and hopeless, but not quite like this—“Hallucination I” is a dense monolith of reds and blacks, whereas “Scarlet Hunter” is a swirling cloud of sepulchral, muted greys.
But on the third track, “Touch Returned,” the mood completely shifts without warning, like the calm after a storm. Warm, woozy synths glimmer like light through a stained glass window and an angelic melody is repeated ad nauseam, making this cut feel like some sort of purification ritual. The title track keeps this mood going and closes the album on a hopeful note, with a sweeping, triumphant melody and a delicate synth, reminiscent of a softly cooing female voice.
The title track might be the perfect distillation of this record’s key achievement, which is that it sounds minimal and maximal at the same time. It’s minimal in that each track contains relatively few components and doesn’t develop very much (this being a drone album, after all). But Eluvium makes it sound like there’s a lot going on with these tracks, whether it be with an epic melody, a particularly big synth sound or just a whole lot of reverb. He immerses the listener with very little.
But that abrupt shift in tone might be the defining feature of Virga II. There’s nothing to ease people into it—not even a transitional track or two. At first, everything sounds desolate and cruel, then bam, blissful and sanguine out of nowhere. This adds to, rather than diminishes, the overall effect of the record. Eluvium describes Virga II as a “journey,” but since there’s virtually no buildup to the place of calm at which it ends, this isn’t entirely accurate. Instead, Virga II reminds people that, while hope can be gone in a flash at the most unexpected of moments, it can also be regained just as easily.