En’s last album, Already Gone, (review here) was notable both for its distinctive palette of sounds and for its cohesion. It offered a succession of tracks of increasing length, culminating and resolving in a 20-minute meditation on Elysium, the mythical Greek isle of the blessed. City of Brides (the title of the new double LP and of its closing track – another eschatological tinge, I wonder?) is less linear. Indeed it thrives on a restless exploration of shifting and contrasting sounds, skipping from noise to clarity, from stasis to rippling motion, from soft to abrasive as we wander from moment to moment and from track to track. And yet there remains a sense of deep unity, as if the various tracks are somehow probing the same question, prodding at the same possibility.
The opener, Blades, greets us with a melodic buzz of distorted, metallic tones that gyrate their way into an encroaching bed of noise until they end up circling in a sludgy loop. It seems a rather abrasive beginning, especially to ears that remember Elysium, but somehow makes sense as we hit the sudden contrast with its successor. The abrupt clarity of the resounding clusters of plucked koto notes that begin Dead Ringer is a startling shift, yet those notes too begin to buzz with a growing halo of distortion, until the clear opening notes finally reassert themselves. Listening to this track after Blades is a little like reading a novel in which the scene suddenly shifts to a new location which turns out to be part of the same story. Then Blonde is Back takes us down another path, plunging us into a warmly drifting wash of sound punctuated by subtle bass thrums, dreamy and soft – and yet embedded in a continuing abrasive buzz that retains a thread of continuity with the preceding tracks. As the buzz recedes, the whole slowly submerges in a gauzy sea of synthetic whispers. We have been led through three contrasting sound worlds, three sonic rooms, apparently held together by the halo of noise through which they emerge.
The same sense of contrast and continuity plays throughout the album. The wittily titled Awkward Paws offers pattering drops of sound echoing in a gentle haze, before a flock of strings flurries past like a sudden patter of rain, leaving behind a clean, peaceful drone, clearly evoking motifs from Already Gone. Just as we ease into rest, a scratchy, percussive abrasion interrupts the reverie and jolts us into the wonderful Mendocino Nature Rave. The earthy creaking anchors a more spacey realm of quavering, whooshing, synthetic sounds. The swoops and oscillations gather in increasing density, creating a deliciously rich, twittering crescendo that marries depth and majesty with eddying motion before fading into a spray of echoing pulses. This pair of tracks highlights a recurring duality in En’s music, which offers contrasting paths to bliss: a restful calm evoked by warmly and sedately swaying tones, or an accumulation of so many simultaneously scurrying, circling flurries of sound that a kind of deep grandeur emerges, like all the creatures of the world glimpsed at once in motion. (Secret Samba offers another very effective instance of this latter effect.)
Two of the tracks form a dyad. Songs for Diminished Lovemaking Part 1 initially calms the proceedings with a steady, soft drone before bright sweeps of reedy sound rise from it and swirl restlessly, questing upward over a slight, gentle rhythm until the track quietly draws to a close. A few tracks later, Part 2 opens morosely with a subdued hum, deep gurgles, and a forlorn scrape of strings straining to attain forward motion. The effort is repeated with gradually increasing force and breadth of sound until a grander resonance is attained, like an orchestra tuning while trying to rise from a bubbling swamp. Further adding to the loose sense of architecture, the scratchy rhythms, bubbling synthetic sounds, and gritty crackles of album closer City of Brides create a blend of melody and noise that recalls the opening track.
En’s music is not about well-defined shapes and clear edges. Patterns overlap, swirl in moiré motion, and dissolve, warm drones wobble and sway at a languid distance, and clear, sharp notes emerge only as fleeting moments of orientation. Pervading both Already Gone and City of Brides is a nostalgic evocation of a blurry transcendence, a gesture toward a world of fluttering beauty and healing calm heard through the mist of dreams, through the indistinct sway of a warm ocean, or through a grainy filter of imperfection. En’s music evokes without clearly naming, painting in sound a world not quite graspable but beautiful nonetheless. It leaves a lasting impression and amply rewards repeated listening. Stream a sample below and find it at Students of Decay records and the usual music outlets.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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