If an artist plans to make their album release low-key, then springing it on the public around the start of the year must be near the top of the list of stealth tactics. There’s the post-holiday return to work, the attempt to go to the gym more than twice and the realisation that it’s still a long way to pay day – plus, there’s half a dozen mixes and playlists which have been cued up already. The initial release date for the digital edition of Year Zero was Christmas Day which may explain which we’ve been a bit lax picking up on it. However, this album has turned into something of a staple since its arrival at ACL towers.
A vinyl edition is now planned so we are, improbably, ahead of the curve and we will update the links as soon as we have them. In the meantime, if you don’t have a record player, then make your way to the link at the bottom of this review and grab the digital edition. If you want to read the rest of the review first, then please proceed.
First, a quick recap: with no experience or training and pushing 30, Gideon Wolf decided to become a musician. He took an MA course in Music Composition and since then has made his way as a composer and collaborator, releasing his first album Paper back in 2012 – you can read a fine review of it here. That was an archetypal debut, pulling in a wide range of influences and producing a varied work which held together remarkably well. Year Zero stems from a much narrower array of sounds, and is arguably his most coherent and boldest statement to date.
The dominant sound here is that of a string trio – but Wolf has not composed pieces for them in the traditional sense. He has given them instructions and direction and then cut, looped and layered the results into a sequence of pieces which are further embellished by Gabi Matzeu’s improvised keyboard work, allowing Wolf to bend the recording to his vision. It perhaps shouldn’t succeed but thankfully it does, the instruments ebbing and flowing from one piece to another, gradually morphing from chamber piece into an unsettling vision as the instruments are infiltrated by digital intruders.
The album opens with a sequence of tracks dominated by long notes on the stringed instruments; not constant held as such, but with gradual shifts in tone. By the fourth track, however, the mood of Year Zero is beginning to subtly change – billows of digital noise buffet the strings on “Insect” and there is a developing sense of unease as an industrial sounding drone and ripples of piano cut into “Oblivion”. Interestingly, these invasions don’t last, they temporarily displace the string players who manage to return, as if they are springing back into their original positions.
It’s an effect that Wolf uses on other pieces as well, taking the relatively calm sound of the strings and creating something altogether more unsettling. It is probably most effective on the pragmatically titled “Noise” which mutates into white noise so expertly you don’t realise it is happening. If there is a downside on Year Zero, it’s that “Nova” which technically closes the album begins like Bjork’s “All Is Full Of Love” which wrong foots me every time. And notice the ‘technically’ bit – there is a bonus track that follows “Nova” on the digital version which ends the album on a much lighter mood than the album has created. The CD and hopefully vinyl editions don’t have this, as Year Zero takes its time to create an absorbing experience and “X” is similar to the way the studio re-cut the ending of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to make it happy. Like that movie, this deserves to keep its sense of disquiet all the way to the end. (Jeremy Bye)