Sontag Shogun ~ It Billows Up

As Sontag Shogun is a constantly evolving collective, it’s easy to forget that the three current members were once part of [The] Slowest Runner [In All the World].  During the last decade, the band has changed styles many times, but continues to revolve around a base of modern composition.  Their live show has always been key, as the visual element has shared equal billing, to the point that 8mm reel rustles are often folded into their music.  It Billows Up comes full circle, the sample of a street preacher evoking comparison to early GY!BE.  While it’s not quite post-rock, it’s close ~ the music standing next to that of the recently reviewed astrïd, whose latest album is only a step away from modern composition.  Suffice it to say that we love this liminal space in which both genres are honored.

Field recordings have always been part of the collective’s repertoire, and this album is no exception.  The set unfolds like a radio play, beginning with the sounds of traffic and running water.  Soon the piano enters, along with static and sine.  Children play in the background.  The tone is benign.  The music warms the audience like hands rubbed together.  An interview sample fades in and out astride the helpful “hmms” of the interlocutor.  Textural singing wraps a blanket around the dialogue and keys, now pressed more emphatically.  We’ve slipped softly into the second track.  Only when the percussion enters do we notice the transition.

Something is billowing up; we’re just not sure what it is.  Youngbloods writes that the album “pieces together sounds of our waking life,” which seems accurate.  But as “clstrs” demonstrates, it’s obviously a city life.  (The band is from Brooklyn.)  One hears Indian inflections, beeps, birds, traffic and snippets of odd conversation, such as one might pick up while walking swiftly but needing to stop at crossing lights.  The likely meaning of “clstrs” is Cloisters, whose Washington Heights location simultaneously brings to mind art and religion.  When wordless singing begins anew, one connects the voice with prayer.  Is awareness billowing, or diversity, or faith?  All of these readings seem fair, as the album reaches toward mysticism in a challenging yet reassuring way ~ a difficult balance to achieve.

There are many paths to faith, and many competing theologies, but as the street preacher notes, “The only one who really has all the answers is God.”  The open-ended nature of a sonic tapestry is fertile ground for contemplation.  On It Billows Up, humanity meets the rest of nature and is given a musical score: disparate forces forming a fragile harmony.  Sometimes the indescribable is better reflected in tone than in word.  The hands on the cover seem on the verge of prayer; perhaps we too are on the verge of something holy, if only we have the humility to receive it.  (Richard Allen)

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