The musical careers of Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran span back to the 90s with their former groups, but A Winged Victory for the Sullen has already been around for a decade, establishing its own niche. The duo has alternated between studio albums and film productions, sprinkling in some amazing videos along the way. Invisible Cities is a multi-media project spanning theatre, dance and video, helmed by Leo Warner, who was the video designer for the London Olympics. Sadly, COVID restrictions cut the tour after a short initial run; there’s hope for a return in 2021.
One brings certain expectations to a new AWVFTS album, but it’s best to leave them at the door. Invisible Cities is a different beast, rife with drama and drone, with surprising twists and turns: perhaps no surprise to fans of Italo Calvino’s novel, on which this project is based. (For a completely different turn on the same work, see Aidan Baker & Gareth Davis‘ project of the same name, released three years ago this winter.)
The show is 90 minutes in length, the album half that, with no selection topping five minutes, underlining the power of the succinct. The early public tracks ~ the choral “Desires Are Already Memories” and album opener “So That The City Can Begin To Exist” ~ sound like classic AWVFTS, the album hiding its left turns. Piano chords and soft swirling ambience lead the listener into the experience, the orchestra slowly thawing behind a dusty curtain. The opening track is so humble and restrained that one expects to be able to relax over its course; but Wiltzie and O’Halloran challenge the listener in the same way that Calvino challenges the reader.
The brass of “The Celestial City” sounds like a call to a higher plane. This tug of the imagination lasts through the organ and harp timbres of “Nothing Of The City Touches The Earth.” As that piece rises in volume, building on the electronics of the prior piece, one suspects something new is on its way. In “Thirteenth Century Travelogue,” the sonic field flutters, pushing the edges before making a beautiful retreat. In “Only Strings And Their Supports Remain,” it surges. In “There Is One Of Which You Never Speak,” it explodes. As a sweet serenade of strings is engulfed by distorted tension, one wonders how much the framework can bear.
So much for relaxation! But that’s okay, because theatre is about engagement. When hearing such surges, one can hardly wait to see their visual reflections. In the next piece, the drone continues to lurk in the background, biding its time until the finale. “Total Perspective Vortex” flings the door wide open to density and volume before crashing back down to earth, just as Marco Polo does in the book, admitting that every time he describes another city, he is describing his own.
An earlier stage production was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. We’re eager to see if this one can compete. If the visuals are as compelling as the music, we’re in for a treat. (Richard Allen)