Self-proclaimed sound artist Valiska has a rate of composition and release too prolific for us to keep up with. The latest in his line of intriguing conceptual works is an album that draws us away from the repetitious, human-made sounds of industry and city honoured in prior releases to the breathtaking variety of the open country.
Driven by piano, synths and diverse guitar tones, Shifts seems to chart the more abstract course of time as well as a more defined journey taken by the artist to Vancouver, with various landmarks referenced in most of the song titles. A waking sun can be perceived from the opening strains of “Jericho Tides” – a name referring to a beach near the west tip but also bearing more profound association with the antique city in the West Bank (whose Hebrew name, it is theorized, derives from the word ‘moon’). And with Jericho Beach’s tides come the breaking dawn – the sun casting aside its lunar counterpart and offering a shimmering glow of lambency to the water within the first minute of the track. By the following piece, however, it is already the dead of night. As during many long journeys, the concept of time has become distorted as routine is held in suspense.
Through the following six tracks, Shifts presents a subtle and surprising variety. The second track, “Midnight, False Creek”, commences a murkier passage, with layers of synth engulfing as only night can when the opacity of its veil is not compromised by the glow of nearby cities. This oppressiveness is alleviated somewhat through the two-part “Hills and Fog”, but true clarity is only reclaimed in the fifth piece, “Shuswap”. An acoustic guitar – its sole appearance on the record – heralds the arrival of clear vistas, dispersing the fog in slow triumph around 3:40. The ensuing passage of delicate tremolo guitar hovering over plangent piano chords echoes the more ambient moments of Explosions in the Sky.
But the clarity is transient. The journey ends with “Radio Limits” – a piece of haunting vacuity that makes the most effective use of the reversed-note passages that recur throughout the album. Brooding and echoing, these notes suggest the call of unseen fauna lurking beyond the limit of humankind’s influence – a murmurous warning of what may occur should their dominion be breached. The tragic tale of Christopher McCandless’s end at the hands of the Alaskan wilderness comes to mind.
Despite the constantly shifting tone and mood, the album’s triumph is blending its disparity into a cohesive whole that feels entirely natural, moments of sound manipulation notwithstanding. However constant the changing features of a foreground, rivers, beaches, mountains and forests remain backdropped by a relentless skyline that binds all. As dusk settles and renders these features in shadow, it is this line that divides the land from the sky, substance from absence. As promised by the album’s apt cover, Shifts delivers both, with many layers in between its passage from dark to light. It also delivers an organic scene through a prism of artistic process, and, in doing so, attempts to decipher the patterns and cycles it may be possible to perceive within nature’s infinite variety. (Chris Redfearn)