Album Review: William Basinski - On Time Out of Time

I’m certain I’ve said this before, but effectively writing about ambient and experimental music is a difficult task—yet it’s something I continue to do.

It’s difficult because you don’t have lyrics to analyze, or vocals to critique; you can’t talk about production values like a specific warmth or crispness added onto the drum kit. If you’re like me, perhaps you find yourself perpetually talking about the ‘evocative’ nature of the compositions, or the ‘tone’ or ‘atmosphere’ that the performer has worked to create.

William Basinski is, at this point, a household name, if you live in a household that listens to a lot of ambient and experimental work—and by now, Basinski’s name practically precedes itself thanks to what is probably his most well known work—The Disintegration Loops, a six-hour sequence of pieces with such a compelling backstory that it is always threatening to eclipse both the work as well as Basinski himself.

But he’s so much more than The Disintegration Loops.

Like The Disintegration Loops, however, a number of Basinski’s other work is based around the idea of decay—never to the extent to which The Disintegration Loops actually does literally decay as you listen, but his two most recent solo releases, the 2015 companion pieces Cascade and The Deluge, as well as 2017’s A Shadow in Time, are long-form compositions (taking up full sides of a vinyl LP) and all of them are very deliberate in the way they build towards something, and that something eventually evaporates or dissolves.

Basinski plays with tension and release the way other musicians working within pop music may strum a guitar.

His latest compositions are different—On Time Out of Time is not some kind of sprawling piece, assembled by tape loops and other various effects, all pulled through cavernous reverb. Roughly 40 minutes in length, the titular piece on this effort is, in part, constructed with, as the liner notes describe, ‘recordings from the interferometers of Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory capturing the sounds of the merging of two distance massive black holes, 1.3 billon years ago.’

Or, as Basinski says, ‘two black holes fucking.’

It sounds intense—like, this is going to be loud and chaotic. It isn’t. That is one of the surprising things about On Time Out of Time is that even with samples of black holes merging, Basinski practices an incredible amount of restraint throughout. The other surprising thing is that, yes, that way with creating tension is still very present—but here, he’s working with a different sonic palate. Gone are the dusty, decaying loops, endlessly spiraling and tumbling, being stretched through time until there’s nothing left; here, at least on the titular piece, they are replaced with an all-encompassing sense of dread and paranoia, funneled through low, ominous rumbles, sharp atmospheric frequencies, and synthesizer ripples.

“On Time Out of Time” is split into two distinct movements—you can tell when, at least tonally, things begin to shift away from one and into the other.

Unless you have a really great stereo and no companion animals that may be bothered by the loud volume, to really get the detail from “On Time Out of Time,” it’s best to be experienced with headphones—I’ve been listening to it (at least the first 15 minutes, anyway) on my morning walks to work, when it’s still dark out and the air is cold and still—an environment that lends itself to heightening the excessive sense of creeping paranoia and discomfort that Basinski builds during the first portion of the piece.

But it isn’t all tension and uneasy feelings—one of the things that is so impressive about this piece, aside from the fact that somewhere in there, there’s sounds of black holes merging, is the fact that everything is so gradual. The various ripples of synthesizers and other sounds—less ominous sounds, thankfully—are all introduced so unassumingly that it takes a little while for you to realize that they’ve been brought in.

It’s at around 24 minutes in when the composition shifts direction.

It’s not an abrupt shift—Basinski does begin to wind things down prior to this, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when, tonally speaking, the piece starts to sound a little like the very dramatic compositions from Angelo Badalamenti for “Twin Peaks: The Return.” If you’ve seen the series, you probably know which musical cues I’m talking about, but it’s the very self aware, kind of dated sounding, theatrical stuff that pops up occasionally.

With that being said, the final 15 minutes of “On Time Out of Time” arrives as a bit of an epilogue, or an afterward—not a drastically different continuation in the tone from the first portion, but one that takes things in a more pensive and ghostly sounding direction for the conclusion.

As with the last few Basinski releases, the LP and CD/digital formats contain different material—the vinyl edition of On Time Out of Time includes two exclusive ‘mixes’ of the titular piece—with the second side of the LP being dubbed “On Time Out of Time (The Lovers.)” The CD is paired with an additional companion piece, the cumbersomely titled “4 (E+D)4(ER=EPR),” a live track recorded during an art installation; “On Time Out of Time” was commissioned for a series of art installations in 2017.

I would never go so far as to say that Basinski has ever put together anything that’s ‘catchy,’ because, I mean, he’s not putting together pop songs. But, “4 (E+D)4(ER=EPR)” is one of his most surprisingly accessible compositions. Perhaps it has something to do with its length—it is, after all, less than 10 minutes.

Or maybe it has to do with how it’s structured—since it is such a lean track, it doesn’t spend a lot of time working on a slow burning build up. Instead, Basinski almost immediately launches into the piece’s main melody (if you will) or at least the main sound you hear—alternating, contemplative tones—just two of them, oscillating back and forth. And in sharp contrast to the title track, “4 (E+D)4(ER=EPR)” works to create a sense of comfort while it, almost too easily, mesmerizes you in its swirling cadences.

It feels a little strange to describe something by William Basinski as sounding smooth, or slick, but On Time Out of Time is so different, sonically speaking, in compared to his other works. Both pieces included on the compact disc edition of this release glisten in ways that his other work has not. It’s neither a bad nor a good thing—it is just a different side of Basinski as a composer, working with different materials and creating something that is exponentially less mournful but no less impactful in the end.

On Time Out of Time is out now on CD, LP, or digitally, via Temporary Residence.