, February 8th, 2017 22:46
Lawrence English’s new opus, Cruel Optimism, follows in the footsteps of his last solo foray Wilderness Of Mirrors: it deals with fear, both without (the continual global hotspots of wrack and ruin now exacerbated by the looming threat of fascist superpowers of the Western world with the end of the tunnel stretching away like the nightmares of a child) and within (the turmoil that such external forces inherently manifest in us). It also, like his 2011 masterpiece The Peregrine, features a title ripped from an influential book – this time a tome on social-capitalist trappings and the inevitable demise that such unattainable fantasies bring about by American theorist Lauren Berlant.
English’s preoccupations have always been with how sound communicates across different planes – his two-suite composition Vienta harnessing wind in Patagonia and Antarctica to construct an awestruck snapshot of the fury of Mother Nature; Kiri No Oto creating the aural equivalent of fog using the theory of harmonic dissonance; even his recent collaboration with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, HEXA, is to create the sonic backdrop for David Lynch’s series of factory photographs. English always endeavours to tackle thorny issues on several cerebral levels, and here – a ten track collection of oscillating soundstorms that contemplate the presence of power both present and absent, and the trauma that such power instills in us - is as ambitious and prescient as anything he has taken on.
Cruel Optimism is something of a first for English as he actively ropes in contributors to add their own dense formats to the mix. Esteemed sonic travellers such as Heinz Riegler, Thor Harris, Norman Westberg, Tony Buck. Chris Abrahams and Mats Gustafsson, all well acquainted with the aural outlier tag and having had their own pieces championed through English's Room40 imprint. Cruel Optimism then is a protest album – something political and socially aware, but rather than aid it stands adrift, documenting the prostrate torment that tears through most bereft of power and consumes by the traumatic fallout, all delivered in a sensory wave, something that absorbs and immerses, envelops, is inescapable, yet never lectures.
'Hard Rain' hits like the name suggests – no easing in, an in media res moment that pitches you straight into the maw of human distress, extolling anguish through osmosis. The density of the opening track is intimidating, but there is a porousness to the wall of dark grey that lends it poignancy – it's breathing, living, a wail into the howling abyss. This oppressive weight does abate so much as ebb away with the low tide, as 'The Quietest Shore' creeps into focus, a sense of quietude that nevertheless refuses to forget (or forgive) the preceding onslaught. 'Hammering A Screw' belies such wary skepticism – the melodramatic blasts of wind-and-white-noise attack like the shattering of a ghost town decimated by a bomb blast, and with it the shattering of any sense of hope. There is a degree of desolate wantonness to the album as it continue to trawl the depths of human despair – the swirling siren scream of falling weaponry can be hinted at under the screed of 'Crow'; the hushed tomb-like calm of 'Requiem For A Reaper/Pillar Of Cloud' is the glacial liquefaction of fears actualised – a relief that the fear no longer grips the soul, because the soul has left the body behind.
There is an industrial intensity by fractions halfway through 'Exquisite Human Microphone' that connotes the silent scream of redacted rage as the powers that be swallow all hope in their blind and unblinking stampede over the future. 'Object Of Projection' is a more propulsive beast and feels less nihilistic due to its format, yet its widescreen assault never truly lets the tension slip (Riegler's guitarwork more prominent here, the apocryphal bulldozer that drives the world inexorably into its own grave). 'Negative Drone' is almost oppositional to its title – the darkness wavers into something akin to a fine mist, still grey, still apocalyptic, still blanched of hope, yet somehow promising SOMETHING... Yet the answer is never given. 'Somnambulist' is a bleary-eyed clarion call to the atrocities of the past, the present, and invariably the future, something that closer 'Moribund Territories' refuses to let dissipate, instead offering a wistful, pregnant rumination on the futility of life.
Devastating and horrid listening, right? Well let me put it this way. About the fifth time I listened to Cruel Optimism, I had headphones on for the first time. The other instances were listening through various crappy speakers – my labored Hewlett Packard laptop, my iMac, the abused speakers of my classroom (called unironically Jungle Rex). ‘Hard Rain’ kicked in like blood surging straight to my ears – it was discombobulating. Then there was this stuttering thud that came through after the three-minute mark that I hadn’t picked out before – not syncopation exactly, definitely not rhythmic, not even lysergic – it was this asymmetrical thump, like someone banging a floor inconsistently, drugged, yet dully insistent. It took me a couple of rounds to work out that is exactly what it was – the neighbours upstairs, doing whatever it is they do every night to create aural chaos. Yet instead of letting it interrupt my listening, I let it heighten the experience.
And this melding of English’s world and mine made a heady sense – because Cruel Optimism focuses on the minutiae of inert existence as much as it does the macro-decimation of hope, ideas and dreams. People are cruel; fate is blind; destiny is irrelevant. We set ourselves up to fail, unless we embrace what we can and make it work. English banded with likeminded souls to create a precious document of despair as a foundation for discovery and advancement; it is up to us to do the same.