Christina Vantzou - Nº 1 (Kranky; 2011)
I spent most of 2011 avoiding drone and ambient records. To be fair, I rely mostly on my fellow Neighborhood Killer, Josh, to wade through all the shitty stuff and delivery the goods. Meaning I don’t do much of my own active searching anyway. Most of the stuff we did get to had an obfuscated synth drone landscaping quality, which of there were some gems. But I find there are less and less ambient/drone albums I return to after the first batch of listens around the time a record first comes to my attention. Aside from the obvious genre pioneers like Brian Eno and everyone out of the early 70s German scene (Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultz, Cluster), not many artists are even held aloft in a broader musical sense. We could talk about psuedo-crossover indie acts like Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, and Tim Hecker, all of which I love, but seem more compositionally aware than atmospherically exploratory.
I like the age-old Eno thesis for ambient music - music meant to embody a space and not consciously listened to. For those that love ambient and drone, there’s obviously a very specific something that listener might be looking for as most basic musical tenants are either spread the hell out or blurred beyond recognition. It’s why many of these crossover acts obtain that crossover status: they’re built for active listening rather than something to gracefully fall into a dream to. Now that’s not to say I don’t actively listen to Music For Airports, but with ambient artists that might fall into that nebulous, more subconscious or unconscious experience, the music is less about listening, more about emotion and imagination and place. The sounds might not embody a space, but the listener will certainly occupy one.
Christina Vantzou has an obvious connection with Stars of the Lid due to her one-off collaboration with Adam Wiltzie. Stars of the Lid is the artist behind what is probably my favorite drone/ambient record, Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline. It’s a double album of layered and stretched orchestral volume swells building in and out of serene and gorgeously melancholic ambient melodies. SotL tend to, what I consider, a fall-asleep-to sort of drone music. The melodies on Refinement are incredibly arresting, but they slide in and out of existence like the tide smoothly gliding up a sandy shore and around your ankles before just as gracefully gliding back again. The record is much more conducive to unfettered waves of emotion than to musical intricacy or momentum or anything at all tangible.
The connection and comparison between SotL and Christina Vantzou’s first solo album goes beyond the single degree of separation. The Dead Texan’s eponymous record is a much more active experience than either latter-era SotL or Vantzou’s debut, including guitars and electronics with the overall mix of more immediate string arrangements. But Nº 1 turns its orchestra into the same transcendent, bodiless feverous unconsciousness SotL have all but patented. Yet there is a more dynamic and diverse hand at play on Nº 1. It’s easy to touch on the broader instrumental pallet, which most notably includes dripping piano and Vantzou’s own textural moans. I compare Nº1 to Refinement (versus The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid) most readily because the melodic tone is very similar, but there is a curious active undertone to all of Nº 1. Whereas Refinement of the Decline had a pretty consistent and steady emotional pace, Nº 1 often bursts out of its cavernous slumber into fits of flighty, propulsive catharsis. Within a single song, moving from ominous to exultant (“Prelude for Jaun”)
There are two moments I want to specifically mention. Both of which have brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions, which is rare effect for ambient music. Especially when its of the non-moment-to-moment kind. And they’re also moments that put Nº 1 in an interesting place of its own when viewed next to its piers. “Super Interlude Pt. 2” toils with a shadow underbelly of droning cellos before the stretched two-chord melody is joined by violins and vocals. A ping-ponging electronic effect slides into place before the violins take off into a swirl of ascending counter-melodies. The affect is at once subtle and grand like your drifting unconscious mind being suddenly capsulated and tugged bodily aloft. The other moment comes near the end of seven and a half minute “Adversary”, which is a track full of glorious heavily submersive weight of barely-recognizable strings - patient melodies churning slowly at the bottom of an ocean. A lone horn floods the space with streaks of a sonorous melody before a colossal sub-octave surge rises to the surface like a great bellowing maw. Nº 1 tows a curious line as there are some dramatic compositional shifts in these songs, but the album still moves like a dream, fitful and beautiful.
—Will Ryan // January 3, 2012