On Lamentations, William Basinski again indicts the concept of recorded sound as deathless zombie-like preservation, revealing instead the inherent impermanence of technology’s documentary mediums,
Is it really just a cliche at this point, only a meme and nothing more?
The sound-art of obsolete technology and damage, the gathered warbles and static-churning decay of culture’s former tech breakthroughs have become shorthand for sepia nostalgia and eerie mystery, so much so that it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at yet another film or musical conceit that explores this subject. The death of analog and the ascendance of cold, sterile digital perfection is a topic that’s more than been dissected to death by now. So if anyone still has something fresh to say on the subject, it’d be one of the sub-genre’s pioneers and premiere architects. Thus we arrive at William Basinski’s latest release, in 2020.
We can answer the question of “is it a meme at this point?” easily enough with Mr. Basinski’s seminal post-9/11 work, The Disintegration Loops. These extended pieces of sampled orchestration are defined by the natural breakdown of their quality as they were transferred from analog to digital storage, eventually falling apart entirely as the process itself devoured them. Casting the shadow of historical context forever over these works were the events of September 11th, just across town from where Basinski was toiling, accidentally reflecting the loops’ reduction to raw material through a much darker and haunting lens.
Artist: William Basinski
Label: Temporary Residence Ltd.
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
It was an audacious and masterful expression of sound art, one that has been ossified into all sorts of lazy jokes and signifiers nearly two decades later. Regardless, these are the waters perpetually charted by Mr. Basinski, both before September 11th and afterwards. Regardless of the irony that’s battened itself like a vampire onto his defining works, he continues to traffic in the demolition and destruction of sound, the intersection of technology with fading memory.
In this way, Basinski shares much with kindred spirit Leyland Kirby (aka The Caretaker), who recently wrapped up his similarly-defining landmark with Everywhere At The End Of Time, a collection of albums fixated on amnesia and the slow death of experience, refracted by the crumbling elements of yesterday’s music. On Lamentations, Basinski again indicts the concept of recorded sound as deathless zombie-like preservation, revealing instead the inherent impermanence of technology’s documentary mediums, the tendency towards eventual collapsing and withering away. Rather than playing off of each other, the assembled fragments of loops gathered here seem to exist unknowingly in parallel, accidentally contrasting each other while single-mindedly disappearing into oblivion, a void where we cannot follow, cannot hear. The loops depart us rather than fade from being, abandoning us at the precipice of the eternal, now inhabiting lands we cannot imagine. We feel their absence keenly.
The Disintegration Loops will always make me think of destruction, a separating of parts to undo a gathered whole, a shattering of components to isolated separation. Lamentations, instead, puts me in the mind of vastness, of glimpsing these elements from a distance and watching them dance further away as I approach, never reachable or understandable, shrouded in distance. Somewhat on-the-nose titles such as “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Paradise Lost” are harshly rebutted by the plaintive honesty of naming a track “Please, This Shit Has Got To Stop”. Samples of operatic morning and Balkan folk-singing surface from such billowing haze as if drowning, reaching out grasping for one last moment of recognition before surrendering to the tide, swept under forever. “Transfiguration” offers a fleeting sense of hope, broken and besieged as it may be, while “Fin” is as unapologetically elegiac and moving as its simple title. As in love with static and imperfection as ever, Basinski is also in love with vague hope and doomed resilience, right alongside the sad and the ever-bittersweet.
None of this is new for Basinski, and this deep into his storied career he has little left to prove. But Lamentations’ strength isn’t in how compelling of an artistic voice its creator remains, but how consistent. There are any number of potential starting-points for a Basinski newcomer, but the mark of his singular quality as an interrogator of our relationship to sound is found in this: you can begin with almost any of his albums, including Lamentations, and chart a road inward into his universe.