Review Summary: Visible Cloaks produce fascinating sonic textures, but despite its lofty ideas, their second album feels emotionally distant.
After listening to Reassemblage
a number of times, I continually find myself thinking about it in visual, rather than aural terms. Like an unusual piece of physical contemporary art, this is music you would stand in front of for a few minutes, cupping your chin in your hand, head tilted, digesting the work. And in that work, I imagine some pseudo-reality of a digital jungle, Far East mysticism, artificial intelligence. But for all the imagery Visible Cloaks inspires, their music still lacks the emotional stakes and lasting melodicism that could make their software-music proficiency really resonate.
The artistic premise for Visible Cloaks, the Portland, Oregon duo of Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlisle, is multi-faceted. Doran and Carlisle embrace 21st Century multiculturalism and the technology that allows for a theoretically universal sharing of ideas, including music. And yet, they have a bone to pick with "world music" (as it's so often labeled), which they see as reductive and filtered through Western biases that turn foreign cultures into props and curiosities. They are inspired by the 1983 ethnographic documentary Reassemblage
(the namesake for their album), in which the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha documents life in rural Senegal with expressed intentions not to introduce any outside cultural values, meanings, or judgements to the project.
In that sense, Visible Cloaks do not want to simply mix global sounds, but create chemical reactions with them. The final concoction becomes vaguely of this world, but difficult to geographically source many of the influences. At the final product-end of this process for Visible Cloaks, however, the predominant reference point becomes Japanese music, owing largely to Doran's long-running fascination with the Japanese electronic scene that led him to release several solo albums there. Specifically, the group's sound is heavily indebted to Japanese electronic and ambient music of the 1980s.
While never overloading songs with too many sonic ideas, the overall sound of Reassamblage
remains busy for an "ambient" album. Visible Cloaks use generous pauses of silence that space out different movements and set a meandering, fluid pace. Reassemblage
never fully retreats into a landscape, for better or for worse. Gentle chimes are interspersed with sharp clicks and crunchy warps. Intricate melodies beg to be fully perceived. While the album is almost entirely computer-generated, the sounds can often be visualized as emanating from physical instruments, a credit to Doran and Carlisle as electronic musicians.
"Screen" starts Reassemblage
in a wash of flowing reverb and shimmering pops, like a million pebbles hitting a frozen pond. "Valve" is an interesting experiment in which Japanese musician Miyako Koda's spoken-word vocals are transcribed into a MIDI melody that then plays simultaneously with the vocals, making for a curious human-computer hybrid sound. Woodwind tones drive the beautifully meditative "Terrazzo," produced with electronic artist Motion Graphics.
is an impressive arrangement of electronic ingenuity, but as an emotional piece, even after repeated listens, the album remains largely sterile. Based on a lofty philosophical premise, Reassemblage
is less of an album and more like an academic and artistic think piece, deserving on biography on a museum wall. With each listen, I imagine myself first hearing this music in a gallery of contemporary art, turning the corner to see Reassemblage
as both an audio and visual experience, perhaps including the album's intricate lattice cover art. Indeed, the use of reverb makes the events of the album feel like they are taking place in a physical, indoor space.
For the lofty ideas behind the music that Visible Cloaks make, as with all art, there is a difference between the ideas and what ultimately lands on the page, canvas, or track. Visible Cloaks introduce fascinating sonic textures here on their second album. But for the group's grand ideas about musical multiculturalism and technology that spans all barriers, perhaps there are still more personal, emotional places that Reassemblage
doesn't quite go.