Album Review: William Basinski - A Shadow in Time
Writing about instrumental, ambient, and experimental music is difficult. I’ve been doing it for, like, four years now, and it hasn’t gotten any easier.
I mean, sometimes I worry that I use the words ‘evocative,’ or ‘transcendental’ way too often when I’m describing something. But, like, it is a challenge to write about music without words or traditional instruments because you wind up writing about the atmosphere and tone the piece creates.
I was probably a few minutes into one of the two new William Basinski pieces found on his new full length, A Shadow in Time, when I headed to his website to pre-order a copy of the LP. Returning after less than two years following the release of The Deluge, the titular composition as well as its companion, a tribute to David Bowie, finds the experimental auteur exploring both accessible and sinister sonic territory.
When you think of someone who works exclusively in decaying and manipulated tape loops, the word “accessible” doesn’t exactly come to mind. I mean, it takes a special kind of someone to sit down with all 6+ hours of The Disintegration Loops and appreciate the subtle beauty of it. In a surprising turn, Basinski’s “For David Robert Jones,” somehow constructs itself into a memorable rhythm of noises that converges with an opposing loop of a saxophone. The two sequences play off of another magnificently, if not jarringly, for, like 14 minutes, until they both fade off into the ether.
The titular composition is something else entirely.
“A Shadow in Time” begins without warning. It doesn’t fade in, or even give you time to think; it just starts, and it’s startling. From there, it moves quickly in a very stark, very ominous direction, as Basinski crafts the piece using a low, gloomy drone, slices of sharp feedback, and a slightly warmer tones that attempt to glide across the top of it all.
If “For David Robert Jones” found Basinksi inadvertently working within a slightly more palatable atmosphere, “A Shadow in Time” places him in a place of unnerving tension; the nearly Lynchian underlying sense of dread that runs throughout the piece is like nothing Basinski has explored before in other compositions—even when the original loops come to a conclusion and the piece heads into its second part1; there’s still something unsettling going on just under the surface, underneath the somber, reflective piano echoes that carry you through to the end.
Despite what you may think of ambient, instrumental, or experimental music, it actually asks a lot of its listener. A Shadow in Time, much like any good instrumental music out here, is not the kind of thing you just put on while you’re doing the dishes. Listening to this is a two-way street, because as both pieces slowly unfold, it becomes all too easy to get lost in them. They are each hypnotic—“For David Robert Jones,” in a warm, comforting way; “A Shadow in Time” in a slightly more disconcerting sense.
William Basinski’s career has been an interesting one. He started manipulating tape loops in the 1980s, but didn’t release any of his pieces until 1998. Since then, he has become a marquee name within the experimental genre. With each effort he puts out, he investigates emotional depths through using different sonic textures. A Shadow in Time is no different; he makes this look effortless, and at nearly 60, Basinski is still growing and maturing as a performer and artist.
1-It seems worth noting that the second section of this piece, or “coda,” as it were, is reserved for the CD release and certain digital versions only. It is not found on the vinyl.