One doesn’t listen to an Ian William Craig album as much as experience it. This is again the case with Music for Magnesium_173, which finds the composer at the top of his abilities and still rising. Surprisingly, the album is the score to a video game, defying most expectations of what such a score should sound like. Yet when one learns the nature of Graham Johnson’s Steam game, “a branching series of puzzles, with new ideas constantly introduced, examined and twisted,” one can see why Johnson contacted Craig.
Craig’s own style has been mutating and shifting, although it shares a few common denominators. The most obvious is Craig’s falsetto, filtered, looped and abraded, although on recent releases he has sounded as clear as a chapel bell. A timeless, worn patina is a further hallmark, like a radio station just out of reach. Each album flows as an album, rather than as a series of singles, although singles are often released. The track title “It’s a Sound, Not an Ocean” serves as a metaphor for the artist’s entire output.
Ironically, the album itself ~ as well as the game, and the oeuvre of Craig ~ twisted and turned its way into existence, beginning as the Threshold EP, then coalescing as a series of files lost when a computer was stolen, shifting a recreation from memory and skeleton notes. As the label writes, the current form represents only “one of numerous possible outcomes.” One might think of “Run Lola Run,” “The Double Life of Veronique” or the more recent “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once” to muse on the nature of choices made, turns taken, the splintering of futures and the metaverse of sonic possibilities.
In this version of Craig, modular synth has become a beloved companion, first apparent in opener “Blue Suit Glitch” and rising to the fore at the end of the 11-minute “It’s a Sound, Not an Ocean.” In another universe, this might not have been so. That electronic sound forms the link to the “classic” video game sound, while retaining a thoughtful, restrained quality. Even so, it is seldom dominant, ceding space in “Zero Crossing” to footsteps and languid voice. “Sprite Percent World Record” is the second-longest piece, although that’s saying little on an 80-minute album in which tracks seem to melt into each other like crayons in the sun. For a short period, drone becomes the dominant tone, as if an ancient composer has fallen asleep at the organ and tosses and turns in his sleep.
On the surface, the point of “Magnesium_157” may be to solve the puzzles, but the real pleasure is in the interaction. The same holds true for the score. Every once in a while, a revelation occurs: synthetic birdsong in “A Given Stack,” a sing-a-long passage in “Prisms.” For the rest of these 80 minutes, the listener is content to wrestle with the questions. (Richard Allen)