Second albums may often be ‘difficult’, but sometimes artists under the unprecedented pressures of time and expectation will take flight. For Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, the situation was slightly different. Two years after the release of their critically acclaimed debut LP in 2011, the duo were approached by the Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor (whose work Radiohead fans will have seen on “Lotus Flower”) to produce a soundtrack for his forthcoming oeuvre, Atomos. The pair composed and arranged over 60 minutes of music during the ensuing four months, and the whole work was performed at the ballet’s premiere in London on 9 October, 2013. A Winged Victory for the Sullen had lovingly laboured for two years to produce their debut, but decided that this time-compressed, commissioned work was to be that record’s successor: a through-composed piece in 11 sequentially named parts whose totality is longer, weightier and superior in all ways.
It takes Atomos almost six minutes to produce anything as comparably stark as the opening of “we played some open chords and rejoiced….” But those expecting a sustained piano soliloquy will instead find the string section quickly re-emerging, hastening to support the isolated ivories. What becomes apparent from this opening movement is the increased attention the strings command. They bask in spotlight moments when reaching out strong, supporting hands to pull the lead characters into the next scene, either in isolation (the solemn cello at the start of “Atomos II”) or in unison (the swelling staccato section in “Atomos VII”). Otherwise they roam constantly in the background like black-clad scene changers, shifting props to create new moods and occasionally advancing furtively to the stage’s front, unnoticed but for their shadowy outlines becoming more defined. The finest example of such clandestine advances is found in “Atomos V”, which starts with a rhythmic synth and reverberating piano and ends four minutes later with a breathtaking, amorphous passage of string-led transcendence, whose sublimity is given wings by malleable counter melodies that never settle. As little of structure can be discerned, the effect feels almost spiritual. This is the record’s zenith.
Its nadir is found 23 minutes later in “Atomos IX”, when a surging swell of synth desolates a plaintive, wandering piano. This marks the start of the murkier final third of the composition, during which two other facets of AWVFTS’s evolved sound make their marks: field recordings and arpeggiated synth. Although both could threaten the balance of the core instruments, they are employed with such sensitivity that – combined with the more pronounced strings – they serve to both broaden and enhance the tonal palette from the first LP’s singularly chamber sound. Fractured, unintelligible voices seem to turn the music’s delicacy to vulnerability, as we glimpse ugly realities seeking to breach the comforting swaddling the music has wrapped us in. The rhythmic synth underpinning “Atomos VIII” curtails the part’s crescendo with an insistent structure from which the keys cannot escape. The sense of abandon from “Atomos V” is banished; a new reality has encroached, and it is one far more changeable than before. AWVFTS have created a vast landscape that yawns before us, desolate and forever changing with the music’s intractable restlessness. It guides us over deserts, across oceans, up mountains and higher still, beyond our atmosphere to the astral bodies beyond. The scope is far beyond that conveyed previously.
But alongside all this evolution, one aspect of AWVFTS remains constant. As Wiltzie himself remarked:
“We tried to balance the discordance between being creative and fulfilling our duties for a commissioned soundtrack with a very strict deadline, and all the while staying true to our collective melancholy.”
That melancholy is mainly conveyed through the perennially sedate tempo, which seems to create great distance between ourselves and the landscape. Yet, through this languorous delivery there are still moments that feel fleeting. Indeed, the most exquisite moments feel the most fleeting, and tend to arrive unexpectedly after periods of protracted calm – as with the thrilling, glacial piano chords that descend two and a half minutes into “Atomos VI” – the album’s highlight. That such moments depart so quickly makes them all the more precious. Despite the record’s immensity of scope, these are the moments that convey its intrinsic and intimate humanity. They are fascinating objects that shoot past the window of a speeding train, in a blur of colour that jolts us from reverie. They are the moment after waking when a fantastical dream is briefly pulled into reality before inexorably slipping away. They are every precious instance in life that cannot endure, but whose very transience makes it resonate all the more. This truism of life – is it to be celebrated or cursed? Do we feel joyful or miserable? Atomos somehow conveys both; whichever dominates will depend entirely on you.
Although having never been interested in the art form previously, I now yearn to watch the ballet for which this music was brought into being. Doing so may help bring some semblance of narrative to this wordless, esoteric creation, whose emotions are complex and whose destination is unknown. But there’ll be no regret if I don’t, for a performance of sorts plays out from the record regardless – one borne of imagination and mood, and that offers something different with each listen. Bereft of words, Atomos still speaks in a captivating voice both beautiful and lachrymal. (Chris Redfearn)