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Cruel Diagonals - Disambiguation Music Album Reviews

On her debut album as Cruel Diagonals, the Oakland experimental musician Megan Mitchell turns samples sourced from ethnomusicological archives into ambient music that’s both expressive and empathetic.

The title of Megan Mitchell’s debut album as Cruel Diagonals seems ironic at first. Disambiguation suggests a process of clarification, yet Mitchell’s music is full of mystery. Her songs often retreat, with sounds fading soon after they emerge, and silence always threatening to overtake her atmospheres. It’s tough to make out the words in her shadowy, disembodied singing, if there are words there at all. Her track titles acknowledge all this in terms such as “oblique,” “vague,” and “liminal.”

Yet in one crucial respect, Disambiguation is loud and clear. That’s Mitchell’s use of bold, distinct beats. Nearly every track centers on a prodding pulse, providing skeletons for other sounds to float around like a ghost’s billowing sheet. To make those sounds, Mitchell used field recordings and samples from the ethnomusicology archives at the University of Washington, where she studied Library and Information Sciences. As a result, her rhythms seem to arise from the depths of nature. It’s as if you can hear wisps of history inside their spellbinding echoes.

Because Mitchell’s beats are so strong and willful, they give Disambiguation a lot of force. Everything moves forward deliberately, and soon enough all the sonic obscurity becomes a tool with which to express emotion and build ambience, instead of a cloak to hide behind. Rather than pushing you away, her subtle music beckons you to come closer. Naturally, there is some loneliness and even desolation emanating from her restrained approach, but there’s also a lot of empathy. The feeling of solitude she creates is honest in a way that can make you feel less alone.

Disambiguation’s enveloping moods develop gradually. On the best Cruel Diagonals tracks, Mitchell starts slowly, establishing an aura before infusing it with a rhythmic arc. On “Oblique Ritual,” long tones make room for a minimal beat, which eventually rises to meet Mitchell’s vocal hums. A far-off drone gradually works its way into focus on “Render Arcane” before transferring momentum to the kind of chiming repetition often associated with Steve Reich’s loops. Mitchell can also hit the ground running: “Enmeshed” begins with a bounding rhythm that’s soon echoed in her foggy moans, which are so haunting it sounds as if it she recorded them during a previous lifetime.

Mitchell’s sonic environment evokes some other dark electronic music (particularly the murky concoctions of Demdike Stare), but mostly it feels singular. The danger in building such a unique sound world is the possibility of stripping the archives she samples of their original cultural contexts. But she treats all of her sounds with such care and thought (much like her direction of Many Many Women, an index of women and non-binary sound artists) that her process of reworking respects her sources rather than exploiting them. The result is music that’s both sonically and thematically inclusive. By the end of Disambiguation, what’s left isn’t so much an impression of Mitchell’s own identity as her ability to meld it into something bigger than herself.

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