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AU’s latest avant-folk record arrives burdened with a certain kind of expectation. The project of Portland-based Luke Wyland, AU has long relied on a core sound, then and now, of classical craftsmanship with experimentalist leanings, combined with Wyland’s own multi-instrumentalist technicality. Over two years in the making, Both Lights is a meticulous product relative to the seemingly spontaneous offerings of 2007’s self-titled album, 2008’s Verbs and 2009’s Versions – all three reliant on a shifting collective of collaborators who contributed to the albums’ fantastic fusion of ideas, as well as their incoherence.
Yet there have been important developments within these recordings. Versions’ reworking of songs from Verbs, focusing the latter’s sprawling psychedelia in an instrumental core of Wyland and percussionist Dana Valatka, clearly aimed at something more structured. Has it been enough? Within the critical attention around Wyland’s music, there have been accusations of stagnation, and comparisons made between AU’s relatively static style and the remarkable evolution seen in Animal Collective’s sound world.
Beyond the stylistic explosion within Both Lights – Congolese, choral and jazz-inflected moments, sometimes descending into Keith Jarrett-like keyboard vamps, there is still room to breathe here. Whereas the bombast of Get Alive and Solid Gold betray Valatka’s previous forays into metal, and OJ revels in its dancefloor ecstasy, Crazy Idol marks something more expansive, filled with stretched vocals. And indeed the closing suite of songs looks to the same kind of religiosity – the haze of Go Slow setting up the emotional tenderness of Old Friend. Putting Wyland’s voice centre-stage, less shrouded than before, is again an attempt at concentration.
In a four-minute instrumental blaze, Epic immediately announces technical detail with its tightly bound blasts of guitar and drums, smeared through with the circular breathing of Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson. Stetson’s appearance is particularly interesting, since his own music hinges on extraordinary technical display – a stream of sound referencing the saxophone works of Evan Parker and John Butcher – yet never chooses the exploratory regions that have defined both Parker and Butcher. As such, Epic points to a wider characteristic within Both Lights. You won’t find brutal contortions and visceral climaxes here. This is carefully constructed, communicative music, but hardly adventurous – and the kind of listener that Wyland aims at seems clear.
Yet why have AU always sat on the margins? While in many ways they share the same soundscapes, AU never indulge in Animal Collective’s mad carousels, eccentric lullabies and pastoral innocence. No doubt, there is sentimental and spiritual grandeur here, constantly invoked by the numerous pedal points that run through the album, yet never reminiscence, or the macabre. There is a tension here – the listener wonders whether we have been here before, and sometimes it is hard to see where AU are going, beyond the sheer assertion of technicality. Yet the palette is nothing short of interesting, making Both Lights both a complex and fascinating listen in equal measure.