A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s third studio album, Iris, wilts in the winter and blossoms once again in the ripening of spring. With surprising additions and slightly harsher elements, Iris is a sub-zero score, and while it may be cold outside, the breaking of the sun can still lead to a beautifully crisp, bright day. Musically, the record is less a natural development and more a slight departure. While 2014’s sophomore Atomos inflated their modern classical-slash-ambient sound, their score for Jalil Lespert’s film expands it even more.
Instead of being constricted by the sharp and precise imagery of film, the score to Iris retains their refined, spacious atmosphere while being possessed by an altogether much darker soul. It can complement the image on the screen, but it’s also capable of extracting itself away from it, away from the reel; capable of having its own life away from the screen. It’s a sign of progress and of increasing maturity – not so much for the musicians, because they both already have that aplenty, but for the project as a whole. Iris is both older and wiser, it seems.
It’s less of a subtle change and more of an instantly apparent one, taking the duo of Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran into new areas of sound. For a start, the orchestration feels deeper, and while a 40-piece string orchestra was used to record the score, something else is contributing to the atmosphere. The minimal piano has, in the past, been a well-defined and articulate aspect of their sound, every note a glistening stepping stone against a spectacular backdrop of an ambient waterfall, some icy drones and a set of solemn strings, but now it’s only an afterimage, glowing like something under the water. The grounded electronics keep the piano from appearing in a prominent way, but it remains to be seen if this is a new style or just a temporary outfit. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that both of them made sacrifices and changes for what the film demanded, and that’s the way to go.
As if to highlight this drift, the skeletal, fragile-as-glass melodies of their debut are no longer around. It may be a case of been there, done that, but in the process a part of their musical character disappears. Instead, Iris sleepwalks into a void of power bristling with static electricity. The red-blooded electronics are not just passers-by but inhabitants; they stagger and strafe, pirouetting in an unstable ballet drunk on midnight wine. The tender string swells are delicate, and the purring electronics sit beside them, threatening to bare their teeth in a menacing growl but never becoming abrasive or aggressive. As a quietly stirring breeze can lead to a volatile tempest, so too do the strings rise up in power and in might, constructing proud statues to reputable kings of long ago.
As expected, Iris is cinematic in its scope and in its quality. It was never going to be a let-down, but neither is it more of the same; progress is a brave thing. Light and airy electronics have always been there, but they were faint smudges, flickering in and around the atmosphere like a playful tail, whereas now they’re sharper and more pronounced. The synths strobe and pulse, making repeated incisions with sharp silver daggers. Sodium-washed streetlights stutter in the blaze of a too-bright light, in time with rhythmic footsteps, but the music is still recognizable. This is an urban sound, complete with darker streets home to shadows sketched in black; where near-empty roads are lit by dazzling headlights and sleeping trains slumber in their sidings. The city is quiet and fog-soaked as the music takes on the nocturnal, sleepy glow of a night drive.
Their music is in the constant process of ageing and is therefore a natural thing; it’s supposed to be this way. The seeping strings are a shade darker; grey hairs are creeping in. Sadness is clasped in a locket, and the heart cannot let it go. The dignity of the music is still there, but some of the harmonies have fallen away, rusting in a dying, dull gold, a rainbow with only one color. Still, it has the ability to occasionally shine and gleam, like a hopeful smile in the midst of a cold spell, and “Flashback Antoine” does exactly that. The air of a cool summit sweeps over the sound as the strings slowly play a haunting progression, and the piano resurfaces on “Galerie”, aiding sedation and filling the air with an amber glow. Iris can sometimes be a cold and moody listen, but it wants to believe in something better, and there’s still warmth in its heart. By the end, on “Comme on a Dit”, the dark mood has softened. The light is allowed to enter, melting the atmosphere like a January covering of black ice. (James Catchpole)
Release Date: January 13