Willie Reviews Wilson Tanner’s “II”

Willie Reviews Wilson Tanner’s “II”

Australian ambient electronic duo Wilson Tanner has released a second album and they have called it II. But don’t think it’s merely some tossed off follow-up to their fantastic first LP. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. II is the story of a seafaring voyage, both fictional and inspired by the album’s creation aboard a riverboat. It’s the meeting point of folklore and electronic music. Washed over with the salty brine of cool, imprecise sequencers, it speaks more to the state of those headstrong enough to go roving on the open seas than the seas themselves. When a person commits to the inhuman endeavor of floating over hundreds of miles of deadly water, they tend to change. Here’s RPM’s soggy review:

I adore it when an artist commits wholly to a niche theme and takes it to every possible end. For Wilson Tanner, it’s as if they said “This next one is going to be about the sea” and there was no going back. The restriction produced an album that at first seems some kind of musical joke (The first track, “My Gull,” could be a maritime version of the Temptations’s “My Girl”), but turns out to be an artistic obsession in earnest. Andrew Wilson and John Tanner make it their goal to hunt down the feelings that radiate out from a voyage on a ship. Their artistic version of the sea is part literary, part real sounds of the sea, and part soundtrack of a sailor’s brain. It’s a speculative fiction built on the mountain of ocean metaphors, tales, and truisms before it. Yet it fits easily onto the rolling waves.

Their choices in instrumentation are often peculiar, with them adding and dropping instruments track by track so that all the musical signatures of the sea make sense together. The gulls are calm companions on the voyage out, but later become sinister when heard as mechanical approximations on “Safe. Bird.” There’s the droning machinery of the ship, which adds environmental color. The swirling air is saturated by the fuzz emanating from the electronics, and clinking sounds of shipwork fill in the gaps. The least obvious but most central sounds are from the humans going sailing. Throughout, we are either ourselves taking on the role of the human taking in the boat’s auditory information or traveling deep inside the head of the sailor. One of the most transparent glimpses of human activity is the long haul sailor’s lazy strum on “Perishable.” It seems to ask “what does one half-hearted strum mean against the rest of this water?”

But to hear the album as it was imagined, we must follow the journey like a narrative. The ambient compositions near the shore are soon crushed and simplified. Things of course become more perilous as the shore becomes harder to see, but the tone doesn’t stop at wistful longing for land. No, the story of the album is that the ship is a place that drives you mad. The music becomes childlike and playful as we venture into its depths. In “Killcord Pts I-III,” something important snaps and the sea doesn’t sound very sea-ish anymore. The fright isn’t in the unknown, but the thought of having to finally confront your thoughts in the open sea. The naive lead synth is like the perishable body connecting stupid thoughts to more stupid thoughts and becoming frustrated. This rapid waltz dotted with bubbling interjections is legitimately terrifying. Wilson Tanner builds up the foam and mist with great detail and specificity only to cut the noise and plunge the listener into the claustrophobic plight of the sailor.

Wilson Tanner, photo from WAT

Floating further, the nervous anxiety goes away and boredom sets in. “Idle” shows us the simmering rage that sweeps over you after the initial panic. In a reworking of the acid techno sound, the sailor’s thoughts return again and again to one warping sound which seems to me to be a bird. Squatting on the deck, your thoughts keep coming back to the bird, who screeches to force you back into your own mutterings, which in turn force you back to yelling at the bird. Neither you nor the bird will ever get anywhere and the track introduces a cyclical frustration. It’s easy to understand this frustration from inside the music, which has extreme narratorial closeness, but if you zoom out and observe this spat from a place of no discomfort, you’ll feel embarrassed for the sorry sucker arguing with the bird.

The two pentultimate tracks seem to promise a swift return to land and to sanity. “All Hands Bury the Dead” is a keyboard composition that has an internal logic. The ends of its phrases hint at tinges of uncertainty, but it’s sensible in a way the last few vignettes were not. The title phrase references the deathly somber ceremony of a burial at sea and the casket floats into the depths as the song fades away. Then, “Safe. Bird.” is almost too good to be true. We’ve entered new age maritime music. Just like so many of these compositions, the song reports two conflicting observations simultaneously. The themes “safe” and “bird” are completely dissimilar—one is a subjective judgement, and one is an objective sensory detail. They don’t gel, and neither do the song’s radar beeps and wails. The disorientation between the high and the low lines is hard to shake.

So it should come as no surprise that we never arrive home, and this sea voyage doesn’t include a return. Instead, the last track references Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” to express the voyage out to death, over the sandbar and away from everything. It reverses the journey entirely, implying that “home” is out in the water, the place from which we came. The water gurgles and we left drifting out to sea, but it is good.

Score: Ahab with a Casio keyboard

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