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Ian William Craig
Red Sun Through Smoke Danijela Bočev , May 12th, 2020 07:49

Shorn of his usual effects wizardry, Ian William Craig's new album becomes a frank expression of grief and loss, finds Danijela Bočev

When Ian William Craig found himself in rural Kelowna, it was supposed to be a calm retreat for a two-week session. The Canadian artist set up an improvised studio in a house owned by his long ailing grandfather, who was then abiding in a care facility, and pressed record. But, fuelled by anthropogenic climate change, the forest fires that seasonally ravage through British Columbia intensified, aggravating his grandfather's condition. Craig’s parents flew in, encouraging him to keep recording, while Grampa’s condition eventually deteriorated into respiratory failure, halfway through the recording.

Red Sun Through Smoke emerges as a triumph, an accidental document of life unfolding in the strangest ways. The work is overwhelmingly informed by the conditions of its production. It becomes a poignant impressionist snapshot, drenched in the acid of a cataclysmic turn of events, giving it both a grave and hopeful stamp. Through the toxic smoke of environmental catastrophe, a new romantic love emerged for Craig and was immediately complicated by long-distancing, infusing the record with the strangest blend of emotional contrasts.

Forceful a capella choral number ‘Random’ opens the record as a manifesto of artistic intent. The key motif of the randomness of life informing art permeates Craig’s slightly aleatoric songwriting, weaved masterfully into a coherent sonic tapestry. Quickly, things hush down into drone power balladry awash in the noise of crackling, decaying technology. Fluid, wistful songs full of spartan grace, gently enveloped in a mournful glow, drift in an out of form. They linger in the ear, like a warm memory before it all dissolves into the reality of decay, rot, entropy. 

Full of utterly bare songs centred on the piano and voice, Red Sun Through Smoke cuts deep into the random nature of life. Love and loss grow entangled as the lifeline to a subject with nowhere to run or hide, nor to succumb to the comfort of stories to ease the burden and soothe the confusion. It’s a full acceptance of life’s random power, embracing human finitude and vulnerability, that gives the greatest strength and depth to one of Craig’s most mature works from a long trajectory of quiet artistic excellence. . What on previous recordings was buried underneath thick layers upon layers of uncanny noise, now emerges unashamedly as a sentimental and metaphysically alone human being at the very intersection of the sublime and the material, the artist at his most humanly exposed. Craig’s advanced aesthetics of decay employ the volatility of tape decks and the fragility of analogue technology. The media’s vulnerability to loss becomes a metaphor for frail humanity, transcribing it into sound with palpable intimacy. 

The simple raw alchemy of a grandfather’s old piano and grandson’s bare vocals, minus Craig’s usual multi-layered studio wizardry, still delivers one of the most devastatingly beautiful and artistically accomplished records of the year. Heartfelt, impressionist piano pieces draw a lot from Satie’s sparse ingenious simplicity, the record often blending that Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes sort of duality of being simultaneously comforting and unsettling. Craig especially masters the use of the spacious pause, freeing more room for pure reflection within a loosened structure, but never losing cohesion or a songwriter’s edge.

From that lull of warm ambient melancholia characteristic of the Grouper and Juliana Barwick school, Craig’s wistful falsetto often goes into James Blake territory, on occasion soaring into a high, emotive cry.”We had grief for supper”, he laments on ‘Supper’, long-unfolding from the amorphous piano instrumental ‘Last of the Lantern Oil’ oozing with worry and smoke-filled claustrophobia. While trapped with his parents in his grandfather’s small house during enforced isolation, Craig describes the view: “the houses across the road couldn’t be seen save for a brief white on white outline. The sun was dull red on grey. The air was becoming steadily dangerous. There was nowhere to go that was not this way; all the space filled up with worry.” An eerie parallel to our current global lockdown predicament, a sonic portal opening into a space of radical uncertainty, suspended in time, Red Sun Through Smoke still offers much-needed comfort and reflective space in which to reshape our disjointed collective emotions and memories of the world we used to know, quickly vanishing into the new abnormal.

Central to Craig’s art is the theme of human memory and especially its disintegration, with a final poignant parallel in his Grampa’s decade long struggle with dementia. Disintegration ambient artists par excellence, William Basinski discovered the traumatic repetition of tape loops disintegrating in the wake of 9/11. Leyland Kirby with The Caretaker project further explored the why and how of the memory disintegration process. But Craig, here, offers the pure emotive core, showing how disintegration feels, extracting beauty from physical decay, degradation, glitch. Contra Leonard Cohen's “crack that lets the light in”, we may say there is a crackle in everything, that’s how the time gets out of joint. 

“Time doesn't care whether forward or reverse” croons Craig on ‘Stories’, a marvellous closer to the album, but his profound sonic anatomy of time in decay feels like an ominous but hopeful projection into an uncertain tomorrow, still not lost. Craig’s textured soundscapes aren’t simply haunted by some lost future, but the undead past and the loss of forgetting in our hypermedia age. Recall Borges’ Funes, the Memorious, the story of a character who, after an injury, loses the ability to forget, cursed by remembering everything to its minute details. Funes is the face of our culture, paralysed by the immobile present where everything is ever-present in the overstuffed cultural memory, recorded and painstakingly documented online, with nothing to sort out the myriad of trivia. A culture that can’t forget doesn’t have the mind-space to think ahead, needing forgetting as a defence mechanism against this unbearable non-decaying condition.

Craig’s sonic craft is like a dreamy balm for our cultural insomnia, restoring the sacred art of forgetting and letting go. The damaged aesthetics of disintegrating magnetic tape are here present both as a means of keeping memory and of destroying it. Closing the circle, Craig’s art embodies the very edge of remembering and forgetting, something Chris Marker understood profoundly, as narrated in Sans Soleil: “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its inner lining.”