While the exact point where drift gives way to aimlessness can be hard to pinpoint, there are definite limits to ponderousness in experimental music. If anybody should know, it’s Jason Urick and Asa Osborne. The pair have a lot in common: They’re both Maryland natives; co-founders of iconic, now-defunct local groups (WZT Hearts and Lungfish, respectively); Thrill Jockey recording artists; and idiosyncratically brilliant, musically speaking, if in different ways.
Urick’s aesthetic involves soaking up anything and everything that grazes his eardrums, remixing myriad elements mentally, then actualizing the stuporific results via his laptop. Osborne, recording as Zomes, methodically and fastidiously carves tautly narcotic songs (that feel oddly unmoored) into the prevailing silence by repeating and layering guitar, keyboard, and drum figures seemingly ad nauseam, even though Zomes zone-outs typically never clock in longer than a few minutes. Both men excel at emancipating you from the terms of your reality and locking you, politely but firmly, into theirs.
To be sure, though, both men run the risk of dying by their own overheating light sabers: Osborne has a habit of writing big batches of brief songs that share an almost identical metronomic complexity, while Urick’s atomic sunsets tend to last upward of 10 minutes. Best to approach this sort of consciousness-softening fare with a pocketful of white pebbles, so you can find your way back home after coming down. January releases from both Urick and Zomes push boldly into uncharted territory.
Zomes, from 2008, and last year’s Earth Grid collected compellingly plodding, portentous sketches stolid as bridge pylons and deep as Frank Frazetta fantasias. By contrast, on Improvisations (Thrill Jockey) Osborne stretches out a bit, exploring his wingspan. On “1,” drones predominate, but these are unruly drones that splinter, refract, and overlap until the music is a living, breathing ecosystem of synthesizers twisting hither and yon, expanding and contracting in volume, as ominous storm clouds gather above for 14 minutes.
Next track “2” sends keyboard blips and splooges up through arid static like air bubbles rising in a dehumidifier for 10 minutes. If it seems like I’m checking my watch, it’s because I am; Zomes’ sphere of influence evaporates over the length of a commercial break. On “3,” Osborne does us right by slowly cranking the volume on coiled-serpent guitar distortion and sustained keyboard chords that are just this side of black metal. The pace is predictably glacial—it doesn’t quicken the pulse, rattle the fillings, or dampen the brow, unless you’re rocking Improvisations on a killer stereo system and have deaf neighbors. But its eight throbbing, oil-slick chromatic minutes seize your attention and refuse to relinquish it.
Since 2008’s Husbands, Urick’s sound has become increasingly indebted to dub, culminating in last summer’s Lee “Scratch” Perry-tastic Title King (Watercolor) collaboration with Cex. And while I Love You (Thrill Jockey) salutes the genre and pays lip service to the hallucinogenic dissonance Urick has traditionally wrested from layered samples and effects, something else is happening here. As always, the watchword is “apparently.” The title track apparently snatches brass blare and golden guitar reverb from the ether before dicing and radically reconfiguring those sounds into the studio-as-instrument equivalent of a malfunctioning casino card-dispensing machine.
“The Crying Song” apparently conflates classic Chinese music scores and an instrumental version of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” while “Don’t Digital” is resolutely more Eastern, flooded with bold, totemic pentatonic scales and eerie, keening cries that feel all the more creepy because it seems like they’re supposed to be comforting someone, somehow. “Ageless Isms” follows in the footsteps of “Don’t Digital,” albeit apparently toking angel dust.
There’s a coldness to all of this, but it’s a disembodied coldness, the way the confluence of disparate sounds, effects, and voices coalesce in the center of the mix to form a domineering cosmic shriek. A good example is “Syndromes,” an avalanche of bells, diamonds, and high, hard synth tones so intense that it provokes gooseflesh and mimics a heavenly fanfare.
The cover of I Love You—apparently—is a photograph of the Earth as seen from space, encased in a spreading scrim of ice. It isn’t difficult to read overt symbolism into that image—climate change, fears/recriminations, apocalyptic dread—but it’s unusual for an album cover to mimic so perfectly the complicated-yet-primal sensations the music evokes. One comes away with the impression that said music is deeper, more mysterious, and more multifaceted than the listener can imagine. Only Urick knows for sure; it’s up to him to say.