The new album from Mohammed Ashraf’s long-running Pie Are Squared project initially trades the maximal blips and beats of his past work for a more gentle, lulling approach. For those familiar with Pie’s output, it’s a surprising departure, though not an unwelcome one. I was reminded of The Sales Department’s recent break from throbbing techno electronica on the brilliant ambient-only effort Broken Records, which remains one of my most treasured albums of 2011. Still, it’s a delightful ruse. Before long, this album becomes maximal in a big and fantastic way, subverting expectations and any attempts to guess where it might be heading.
There are beats, though in the beginning they’re often subtle pulses working in the background of softly swirling drones and lifts. This album was recorded in stark oceanic isolation during the time Ashraf was working and living on a Middle Eastern oil rig, but the backstory needn’t be known to feel a strong sea-like tug from this collection of songs. “Three Quarter Moon” starts decidedly dark, and moves in ethereal, dream-pop directions in no real hurry as seven and a half minutes of lulling tones and shifting elements drift onto scene before evaporating again like steam or sea spray slipping into the ether. Yet halfway through, when you’ve got this piece seemingly pegged as another fine exercise in haunting, ambient stasis, the track takes on some foreboding Boards of Canada bass synth before eventually blossoming into a full-on College-like 80s-synth jam. This album’s unpredictable nature is one of its very strongest points. You’re never sure where a track is headed to, but you’re always pleasantly surprised by the results. Nothing remains static or expected, and that makes this music extremely exciting and special.
Some of these songs are fun and playful. The first part of the “Memories et Cetera” trilogy is buoyed by a jazzy breakbeat and some harsh noise filtering in out and the mix. It’s the kind of experiment Radiohead might have tried, with less intriguing results, in the Kid A era. Ashraf goes for the heart and the feet here, not the cerebral cortex. This is intense and jarring music, meant to inspire a specific gut reaction.
The ideal comedown is the second of this trilogy, all chilly washes and terrifying wails sounding trapped in the deepest of remote mountain caverns. This is a beautiful and moving palette-cleanser from the full-on fury of the first movement, and by the third and closing section of the trilogy, we’re ready for its ominous piano plinks and poppy 8-bit synth burbles over a martial, sparse drum machine beat. What’s somehow most impressive here is the lack of guitars; not a single one was used to produce the sounds found on this album, likely a first for Pie Are Squared. Truthfully, and this is a guitar player here talking, they aren’t much missed. That this album is presented here in a raw and unmastered state makes it even more compelling as a document of solitude and its effects on unfiltered creativity.
Isolation can do wonders for an artist’s output, be it Thoreau, Lord Byron or Justin Vernon. This, Pie Are Squared’s most accomplished and listenable work, should encourage Ashraf to pursue such focus and solitude more often. The achievements here may be simple and small-scale, but they speak louder than thunder. (Zachary Corsa)