18th century philosopher and eminent wise-guy Immanuel Kant once said that when the value of art is to be gauged, certain factors must be taken into account (putting in lightly). Amongst various other aesthetic judgements, Kant said that true beauty is found in objects or creations that appear to be purposive without a purpose. Light Divide is one such creation.
Of course Jon Porras’ day-job as one-half of Barn Owl will inevitably inform listeners’ opinions about this record, for Barn Owl are musically indebted to Americana, film soundtracks and minimalist sound design. This record finds Porras writing in a stylistically similar but tonally divergent manner: the warm, inviting blend the duo conjures could be seen as a counterpoint or ‘twin’ to Light Divide’s ascetic scrapes and drones. The soundtrack connection is still apparent, but this record seems most suited to a dystopian, post-industrial flick or a MoMA exhibition of HR Giger’s fetishist sculptural constructions.
There’s a distinct lack of guitar, an instrument which Porras has used to stunning effect previously, but this kind of menacing ambience showed up on his 2012 releases Black Mesa, particularly the track Beyond the Veil, and on the entire Orilla Oscura release.
It’s fitting that the first track on Light Divide is called Apeiron. Apeiron literally translates from Greek as ‘without end’, ie. infinity. Jon Porras’ musical architecture often adheres to this unquantifiable concept; his soundscapes are boundless and vast constructions designed to allow the mind to wander. His spaced-out post-industrial vibe is alluring, as he creates a sonic realm where the listener is allowed and encouraged to let the music take them on an interior voyage.
Apeiron and the four other movements that make up Light Divide are droning, cavernous spaces for the listener to inhabit. Porras uses sub-bass as his primary weapon, and the album’s predilection for synthetic, electronic atmospherics is its foundation. The minimalist (in the literal and musical sense) approach that Porras brings to this record is practically avant-garde by modern standards: The tracks all appear to be constructed from the same sheet of polished chrome.
Recollection opens with swathes of choral noise, before a thunderous sub-bass boom and heartbeat rhythm push the piece forward – percussive clacks and industrial echo form the basis of the supplementary instrumentation. Divide, which follows, is made of the same shivering palette – where enormous pools of murky bass and whispers open up to envelop the listener.
New Monument is the ‘busiest’ track, and it appears to be a palimpsest of the previous pieces, where the sibilant white-noise and clicking percussive elements are backed up by Pavlovian foot-step echoes and imperious, sharp drones linger for seconds before fading away, constantly pushing towards a ghostly ambiance that serves as a coda.
The record closes with the most subtly charming piece, Pleiades, where analogue blips supplement the previous textures. Halfway in, the chilly air gets significantly colder, evoking M83’s pulsing Oblivion soundtrack. The throbbing rhythm and channel-switching oscillation of the drones is sombre but enthralling.
There’s the requisite lack of variety that ambient records beget, but no lack of depth in the sonic department. Porras’ meditative soundscapes fulfil their brief, so to speak – they are confrontational without confrontational, dyspeptic and austere but strangely rich and fulfilling by the same token. It’s an album with severe deficiencies but a phenomenal surplus of moments worth re-investigativing.
The track lengths are possibly too short, if anything, as the ideas and subtle shifts are ideally suited to a double-album or a box of vinyl – and Porras has by now earned the right to pursue his ideas to a Metal Machine Music level of exploration. He identifies with and perfectly crafts examples of the beauty that can be found in desolation, but the frigid tone of the record is as likely to satisfy the nihilist listener as it is likely to alienate the friendlier listener of ambient records.
If your idea of a good time is psychedelic drugs, black leather and empty warehouses, get this record immediately. But curious fans of Thrill Jockey’s more blissful work are best advised to tread cautiously, for hypothermia is the most likely outcome of listening to Light Divide in one sitting.