Album Reviews

A Winged Victory For The Sullen – The Undivided Five

(Ninja Tune) UK release date: 1 November 2019

A Winged Victory for the Sullen - The Undivided Five The beauty of A Winged Victory For The Sullen is that their unique take on modern classical/contemporary ambient is completely accessible. Clearly, the men behind the music, Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, are experts in musical theory – one glance over the interview they did with us will show you that they’re clearly not pretending to know nothing, like Brian Eno.

Rather, they are completely aware of the fundamental aspects of the composition of fine music, and choose to pursue the purest, emptiest form of melodic construction possible. It’s accessible music because of how knowing it is. This is ambient music that knows and acknowledges that ambient music in itself is a silly concept: each of the nine song titles on The Undivided Five are so dumb they could be from Primus records. 

The inspiration behind the album (or at least the title) comes from the spiritually-influenced abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint and the all-woman art group (“The Five” or “da Fem”) who were amongst the first Western abstract artists. And so the album draws deeply from these connections to the spirit and the psyche, more so than any of their previous studio albums or movie projects. 

These connections to the ether were integral to the formation of the sound of the album, because the album’s genesis lies in the confluence of two equally profound moments in the history of the band: a close friend, Icelandic composer and artist Jóhann Jóhannsson, died, while O’Halloran became a father for the first time. Throughout the album there are contrasts between more contemplative moments, and more majestic passages. 

The record was constructed from independent recording sessions in a variety of (presumably expensive) studios throughout Europe, including Budapest’s Magyar Rádió Studio 22, Brussels’ Église du Béguinage (which, it turns out, is a church over the road from O’Halloran’s home studio). The band also used their own home studios, and the Iceland-based studio of Ben Frost

In terms of the music here, there’s a lot to take in and enjoy, if one were to focus on the music. The Undivided Five is undeniably large-scale, a production that seems to encompass a galaxy-wide spectrum of sounds. Despite its ominous title, The Slow Descent Has Begun is one of the more relaxing selections on the album. A Minor Fifth Is Made of Phantoms offers more aggressive, grandiose sounds – in terms of scale, it would be near to Eno’s Apollo work. Sullen Sonata is also immense, as though formed from sheets of ice in a lost galaxy. Adios, Florida, is frigid yet serene – as though you were holidaying on Mars. The closer, Keep It Dark, Deutschland, closes the album in contemplative mood, relying on the heart-wrenching drama of solo piano chords.

The simplicity of the music here makes it a perfect entry-point for ambient fans who got into the genre through Max Richter‘s Sleep playlist. But it also makes it a perfect moving-on moment in the band’s career – where they acknowledge the influences of the greats (Claude Debussy, always a band favourite, is mentioned by name in the opening track) and restate their own claim to their legacy. The Undivided Five is a characteristically beautiful album, and one of the most enjoyable pop-ambient albums released in some time. 

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A Winged Victory For The Sullen: “There should be space to be inside the music, with thoughts and emotions” – Interview
A Winged Victory For The Sullen – The Undivided Five
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