Our review writers are often challenged when they encounter a well-written press release. Repetition Hymns bears one of these. During quarantine, the author writes, “each day feels like an endless loop.” Given this temporal experience, the loop-based work of Black Swan is perfectly suited to the current crisis, the yin to William Basinski’s Lamentations. While that work was more in tune with the angst and frustration of the modern era, Repetition Hymns manages to find beauty in the smallest encounters and holds on with all its strength.
Opener “Closer” (we couldn’t resist the unintentional oxymoron) shimmers like the nighttime sky, graced recently with a planetary alignment, meteor showers and a surprisingly southern visit from the Northern Lights. Listen carefully, and one can hear choirs: a warm introduction to the 81-minute album, in which 19 tracks flow seamlessly into the next like days upon days. And yet, there seems less weight to this accumulation than spiritual release. The loops free the listener’s mind to dream of higher things and better days. Instead of reflecting the pain, Black Swan offers comfort.
The first time I played these hymns, I fell fast asleep. This is not an indictment of the music, but a compliment. Like so many others around the planet, I’ve had difficulty sleeping over the past year. My thoughts are always racing, even when my body is weary. Perhaps the white noise of the early tracks put my mind at ease, perhaps the surrender to the waves of loops. A few plays later, I began to notice the nuances: a stretch of static beginning, perhaps not coincidentally, with “The Innocence of Sleep” and resurfacing a few tracks later; the majesty of strings on “No Tomorrow,” continuing through the next few pieces; the “continuous breath” sound of “Rites of Luna,” which fades only at the end but transfers to the returning strings a track later, astride hints of organ.
If the title and timbre were not enough to indicate so, these are indeed hymns, but hymns of the half-remembered kind, where snatches of song rise to the surface, lyrics obliterated by time. One remembers the cathedrals, the light streaming through stained glass, the sense of surrender and awe, and wonders, if we strip away the words of sermons and scriptures, can we still learn? If the music causes an ache in the soul, the answer may be yes: the hope is returned to the soul as the notes are returned to the song. “Ballad for Broken Wings” implies healing, an escape from the ravaging loops of time. The cycle breaks. The clock ticks forward once more. (Richard Allen)