Review Summary: A spectral triumph derived from failure
Divine Weight wasn’t intended to be the ghostly ambient album that it is. In its original state it really wasn’t intended to be an album at all. The album is, in fact, almost a ghost of itself, having ended its previous existence lying in a discarded batch of saxophone sessions, deemed by Alex Zhang Hungtai as unfit for release. Dug up, resurrected, blurred, stretched and distorted into hollow caverns of sound, unrecognizable as anything resembling saxophone music, it found life as a new expression of Huntai’s vision: spacious, cold and somber. The album, divested of its ignominious origins, lurks in the consciousness like a specter, subdued, ethereal, but also discomfiting, a dim and uneasy presence that settles on the listener with all the gravity the title implies.
The five tracks of the album maintain the ghostly mood throughout as dim, stark expanses of tone and texture, breathtaking in both scope and timbre, weave themselves in and out of a darkness that is as much a part of the album as the music itself. While the mood of the album doesn’t waver from its cold, cosmic-void sensibilities, (a consistency that some would consider monotonous) the purpose of Divine Weight is found in the individual idiosyncrasies of each piece of the album. From the moody film-score opener “Pierrot”, which sees the saxophone samples molded into whispering flutes, to the impressionistic and organic Yaumatei, in which string-like tones drift and pulse over the dim strains of Chinese street music, each track carries with it a sense of unique personality and purpose that belies their unremarkable origins.
The title track bears out this theme best, ethereal church organ drones rising and falling from the void, distorted and marred by sustained dissonance creeping in to unsettle the flowing expanse of the music. The tracks’ 20 minutes take up fully half of the albums runtime, the drone elements never truly changing throughout, but the massiveness of the piece serves a purpose, harmonies washing over and permeating the atmosphere, the discordant tones at first lurking, then becoming more and more prominent and disconcerting until the cold anxiety has all but overwhelmed the beauty of the music until a final clear, triumphant note breaks through the miasma and fades back into silence. It’s an arresting final moment in an album that is adept at distancing itself from the listener, a moment that pierces the consciousness, breaking through the wall of darkness like a clear beam of light.
As an ambient artist, Alex Zhang Hungtai has shown himself to be a solid cut above his contemporaries in capturing and maintaining a disconcerting, haunting mood throughout Divine Weight, a mood which he expresses through enough unique voices that the thought that this music once existed as a bunch of discarded saxophone recordings will hardly ever cross the listeners mind, except to wonder what was done to make it sound so blatantly un-saxlike. His sound has evolved from the neon drenched alienation of Dirty Beaches into something darker, more profound. It’s the permutation of one form of music into another, from a mediocrity that never saw the light of day to a meditation that embraces the darkness it’s derived from.