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Ian William Craig - Thresholder Music Album Reviews

This compendium of odds and ends from the Canadian singer and sound artist may be his most incisive and convincing album yet, thanks to the way his voice finally becomes one with his machines.

At a glance, the music of Canadian singer and sound artist Ian William Craig may seem to hinge on a gimmick. During most of this decade, Craig’s crackling drones have spilled slowly beyond the contemporary avant-garde thanks to an ingeniously seductive technique: Craig sings ribboned melodies in an arcing falsetto, then routes the sound through, beneath, between, and around pathways of customized tape machines that in turn rend, mutilate, erase, or otherwise mangle his pristine tone. It is a novel but physical effect, a hands-on approach to distortion that mirrors the visceral grip of the din it makes and tends to elicit a consistent how-does-it-work wonder.

But Craig is also a classically trained singer, something evident from his mannered restraint, and an esteemed printmaker who finds deep aesthetic connections between his visual and musical work. He is also an emotive singer-songwriter in the Bon Iver mold and a piano player who favors the steady ascendance of chunky chords. Still, his wider artistic scope has typically been overshadowed by one appealing idea, his multitudes reduced to a single mode.

More than any of Craig’s past albums, though, Thresholder pulls together those overlooked threads with his seraphic tone inside of those tape decks. Thresholder should dispatch any lingering notions that Craig’s best-known premise is limited or inflexible, symptoms of a design that has become a crutch. Instead, on 11 tracks he recorded but never released between his dual breakthrough albums, 2014’s A Turn of Breath and 2016’s Centres, he wields his voice-and-tape technique as an adaptable compositional tool. Just as Philip Jeck uses turntables, GAS fills four-on-the-floor skeletons, and Julianna Barwick arranges her own voice into folds and spirals, Craig’s premise becomes a starting point, not a fixed end.

Where “Idea for Contradiction 1” uses subtle processing to suggest the Vienna Boys’ Choir performing in the hull of some docked cargo ship, “Idea for Contradiction 2” crowds and clouds those murmurs with rhythmic clicks and corrosive hiss from a looped spool of tape. It’s as if that mammoth vessel were collapsing upon its return to sea. His falsetto blends in perfect, damaged harmony with his machines on “Sfumato” but becomes a hapless victim of their industrial design on “Some Absolute Means.” Craig oscillates between the harsh and the heavenly here, the balance too true to life to favor either side.

Most of these pieces are not fragile but delicate, their layers woven together with obvious attention. But there are surprising moments of power here, pieces that afford everything else a sense of topography and scale. “Some Absolute Means” is an essential addition to Craig’s repertoire. Step by step, the keyboardist pits an outsized church organ battered by effects against his crisscrossing coos and a cycle of brittle dissonance that seems to cut crevices into the surface of both. It sounds like Tim Hecker producing the outré Jónsi Birgisson album many expected but never got as Sigur Rós’ star rose.

There has long been a trace of escapism to Craig’s work, the sense that the singer is not satisfied with the body or finesse of his own voice; the electronics are a magic hatch, a space meant for hiding. But listening to these 11 tracks, it seems that Craig is not avoiding reality so much as he is reckoning with the inherent distortion and disruption of our own machine-mediated times. He takes care to never omit his voice, the music’s human core, from any of these pieces; instead, its movement is the source of light, the thing you squint through the dark to decipher.

During the transfixing centerpiece, “And Therefore the Moonlight,” you can hear the faintest trace of a gorgeous vocal melody beneath a groaning drone, as if your headphone connection were popping in and out of its socket while some twilit chamber piece played. You strain to hear the signal, and, just then, it appears, Craig singing beautifully of what must be celestial love. You mourn for the parts you missed, recognizing anew his skills as a songwriter. Likewise, one of Thresholder’s most captivating moments comes near the end of “Discovered in Flat,” where a gentle roar parts to make room for his refracted mewl. He weaves in and out of his machines’ distortion, bits of his voice always stuck to the tape like old taffy clinging to a wax wrapper. At last, though, his ululations drift slowly into the noise, spinning away like flotsam vanishing into deep space. It is a beautiful absence of sound.

Craig’s music is not concerned merely with his gadgets or the way he wants his voice to be. Thresholder is, instead, a summary of the way his voice might be heard or ignored or interpreted in a universe where activity and entropy only increase without bound. If there is a gimmick there, it is one of our own doing and not his, one where we’ve made the signal and the noise inexorably and inflexibly bound. Thresholder is a curved mirror, reflecting that reality back in a feedback loop where technology and humanity continually meet.

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