Aidan Baker & Gareth Davis have been known to make a great racket in their respective (and multiple) bands, but don’t expect that here. Invisible Cities is an album of coiled restraint that seems ever on the brink of eruption. In the end, their music neither explodes nor implodes; the tension remains even after the last clarinet note has faded and the final drone has crumpled to the earth.
The track and album titles are inspired by Italo Calvino’s fantastical 1972 novel of the same name. The surface plot is simple: a young Marco Polo regales an old Kublai Khan on his many adventures, describing city after city: cities dreamt of and cities remembered. Some literary critics propose that Polo is describing only Venice, from different angles. But as with all of Calvino’s works, the prose is the draw: dynamic, drifting, delirious prose.
Cities light as kites appear, pierced cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness.
Imitating the book’s ideas, the artists present chapters on Memory, Sky, Signs and Desire. “Signs” sounds the most like a city, with motorbikes and people mulling around. The conversation is muted, fragmented, dispersed. Davis attempts a pas de deux with the motorist, who travels speaker to speaker as if to toy with the clarinet. To no avail ~ here, the musician always wins. In “Memory”, horns blare quietly while trains pass gingerly. These are people recorded in a real city or cities, now living in an imaginary city that may be more real due to its fixed aural nature. How might Polo describe the experience?
There is a city in which images are only apparent through sound. Voices are only heard when music is playing; without notes, silent mouths form vacant words. The ground is comprised of layers, first ambience, then dirt, then cloud. One must tread lightly in order to keep from falling through. Nothing can be taken from the city; what is lifted for examination dissolves in the palm.
Much of the music is lonesome and forlorn. The notes are infrequent, often tailing off or melting into other notes. By respecting each other’s space, the artists build an atmosphere of even greater space, an endless horizon atop which anything might be built. Only in the very end does the volume grow, a slow urgency rising to just under a boil. Will we believe these stories? Or are we meant to hear a deeper truth buried in the ley lines, a map beneath the sheet music written in folds and stains?
What is seen is not made out of what is visible. ~ Hebrews 11:3, NIV