In what is essentially a radical remix project, the artist formerly known as Dirty Beaches refines his own imperfect saxophone recordings into something radiant and pure.
When Alex Zhang Hungtai made his live debut at the “Twin Peaks” Roadhouse last year, it felt like an appropriate grand prize for years of dedicated service in the realm of avant-garde noir. After all, when we first encountered Zhang, a decade ago, in his greased-up Dirty Beaches guise, he looked and sounded like the sort of enigmatic outlaw who would step off a David Lynch set—familiarly ’50s-retro yet eerily freakish. Now, he was getting to inhabit the role for real, even if it was with a fake band. But because it marked the first time in many years that we’d heard Zhang play anything resembling rock‘n’roll, the “Twin Peaks” cameo also underscored just how far he’d drifted since Dirty Beaches’ 2011 breakthrough, Badlands—and how the music he’s made since then has been too eclectic and audacious to conform to a pat descriptor like “Lynchian.”
Since retiring the Dirty Beaches moniker in 2014, having completed the transition from songs to soundscaping, Zhang has fully indulged his newfound aesthetic freedom. Whether he’s releasing meditative piano instrumentals, forming violent free-jazz trios, or constructing dark, dissonant sound collages with Love Theme, Zhang is never afraid to expose his work’s jagged edges. He’s long favored a raw field-recording ambience that amplifies the overarching sense of improvised experiments being caught on tape in real time. But on his first proper release under his own name, Zhang refines past imperfections into something radiant and pure.
Divine Weight is, in essence, a radical remix project. Dissatisfied with a recent cache of saxophone recordings, Zhang fed them through his laptop, manipulating the sounds into entirely new forms, like rusted copper piping stripped out of an abandoned building and melted down into shiny, interwoven wiring. Structurally, the album evokes the immersive, carefully orchestrated ambient set pieces of Dirty Beaches’ 2014 swan song, Stateless, but on a more cosmic scale. Philosophically speaking, he’s moved beyond Lynch toward Jodorowsky: Zhang has cited the Chilean auteur’s psychomagic teachings as a guiding influence on these recordings, and the music here mirrors their therapeutic mission to transform deep-seated, subconscious trauma into rapturous spiritual release.
Even at its most abstract, Zhang’s music has historically drawn attention to its tactility: The instrumentation was readily identifiable, the mise-en-scène vivid, and you could practically feel his tape loops disintegrate before your ears. But Divine Weight revels in disorientation, blurring the line between sound and source, perception and reality, weaving an atmosphere that’s as oppressive as it is weightless. Sounding like Tim Hecker remixing Colin Stetson, “Pierrot” and “Matrimony” mutate their constituent parts into unrecognizable shapes; the former remolds its sax scraps to emulate the haunting hum of flutes, while the latter layers on frosty synth drones until they approximate the sound of a church choir frozen in a moment of ecstatic harmony. On “This Is Not My Country,” the debased brass serves as the raw material for a trembling, dissonant symphony that conjures our unsettled world today. Famously nomadic, Zhang lived in Los Angeles until the 2016 election influenced his permanent departure from the United States, and this track feels like a visit to the scorched-earth site of a home he no longer recognizes.
Some emotional respite arrives in the form of “Yaumatei.” Though it bears no obvious resemblance to the Love Theme piece of the same name, it’s the track that feels most spiritually connected to Zhang’s past work. Honoring his penchants for geographic title references and raw field-recording ambience, “Yaumatei” feels both more grounded and less refined than anything else on the album. But following that impressionistic interstitial, Divine Weight climaxes with its colossal 20-minute title track, which answers all the hazy-headed music that preceded it with the clearest, most epically scaled statement of Zhang’s career.
“Divine Weight” is indeed a perfect title for this ecclesiastic orgy of church-organ drones that rain down like sunbeams piercing 100-foot-high stained-glass windows. It’s a magnum opus that conveys both the solemnity of a funeral service and the everlasting joy of a soul crossing over to the other side in a blaze of white light. It’s a mountain of crescendoing chords piled one atop the other in perpetuity, grasping for a sky that’s always just out of reach. It’s that THX warm-up fanfare looped for all eternity at jet-engine volume. It is both gorgeous and grotesque. Throughout his career, Zhang has invited us to see the beauty in grit. But here, he presents us with a new challenge: to bear the crushing burden of relentless splendor.
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