Review Summary: Nodding to their past while looking towards their future, and finding continued relevance in the process.
In the weeks leading up to its release, I felt a sort of quiet, curious excitement over A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s Invisible Cities
. I deliberately avoided listening to the track released in advance—after all, ambient is an “album genre” if ever there was one—but I still found myself wondering what the duo of Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O'Halloran had concocted for their fourth full-length LP. Would it continue down the warmer and more detailed path of their last album, 2019's The Undivided Five
? Would it be a return to the despondent, sparse compositions of their 2011 self-titled debut? Or would its origin as part of an experimental theater production place it closer to Atomos
, their electronica-tinged ballet score from 2014?
Despite my eagerness to compare it to the duo’s excellent past work, Invisible Cities
manages to stand apart from its predecessors and forge its own unique identity. More than anything, the album cultivates a surprisingly tense and uneasy mood. AWVFTS usually specializes in imbuing tranquil soundscapes with a profound sense of melancholy, the epitome of the old saying "still waters run deep." Here, their sonic status quo shifts. The weary horn fanfares of “The Celestial City” buckle under an ominous, minor-key piano motif and ghostly, wordless vocals, and the furtively plucked harps on "Nothing of the City Touches the Earth" conjure an urgency that the band has rarely, if ever, explored previously.
In perhaps the most surprising moment of the album, the grinding distortion that swallows "There Is One of Which You Never Speak" evokes Yellow Swans at their most spaced-out, or Tim Hecker at his most frenzied. Wiltzie and O’Halloran will mark the 10-year anniversary of their debut later this year, and they've certainly garnered enough acclaim, both together and on their own, to get by using their past works as blueprints. With all that in mind, it's exciting to hear the duo still pushing themselves artistically, still finding new tricks and tools to incorporate into their music.
also breaks from AWVFTS tradition with its track list. Thirteen tunes, almost all hovering around three and a half minutes in length, provides a notable distinction from their previous albums, which generally favored fewer and lengthier compositions. This allows the album room for some material in a more typically mellow AWVFTS mold, like the austere opening track, "So That The City Can Begin to Exist," in addition to the aforementioned tracks taking their sound into unfamiliar territory. The smorgasbord of bite-sized ambient pieces also gives both members a chance to flex their own individual skills: O'Halloran's mournful piano dominates "Only Strings and Their Supports Remain" and "The Merchants of Seven Nations," while Wiltzie's washes of guitar-based ambience take the foreground on "The Dead Outnumber the Living" and "Thirteenth Century Travelogue." While it’s tempting at times to miss how seamlessly the two meshed across their earlier albums, getting to hear each musician stretch out and show off a bit is hardly something worth complaining about, especially when tracks such as the closer, “Total Perspective Vortex,” combine their powers to such stunning and cinematic effect.
This is still music for those with a taste for the moodier side of ambient music—although this album finds Wiltzie and O’Halloran more restless and unsettled than ever, I suspect they won’t find themselves awash in new converts because of it. And sure, the Stars of the Lid fans who want everything Wiltzie does to be another The Tired Sounds Of...
will probably walk away a tad underwhelmed, if not necessarily disappointed. But for those of us attuned to AWVFTS’s brand of explorative soundscaping, Invisible Cities
offers a worthy update on their style and proves that they’re still far from running out of new horizons to reach towards.