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Sun Araw

Ancient Romans

Rating: 3.8/5.0

Label: Sun Ark

Though 2009’s Heavy Deeds may be Sun Araw’s most widely-circulated album, it was last year’s On Patrol that really cemented him as one of the most daring experimentalists in the increasingly crowded and broadly-labeled genre of lo-fi. When one thinks of an artist recording to cassettes, the word “intimacy” gets tossed around a lot, as if you’re right there in the bedroom with the performer as they chisel away at their sound. Cameron Stallones, the man behind Sun Araw, hardly has intimacy in mind with his latest record, though. Unlike the laidback, looping vibes of On Patrol or the Off Duty EP, Ancient Romans is an often schizophrenic, restless record that’s more interested in challenging your tonal expectations than it is in washing you in atmosphere.

That’s not to say that this is a record lacking in atmosphere. In fact, the whole hour-and-20-minute runtime relies on the building of a sonic foundation that can sweep up the listener. The difference on Ancient Romans, when compared to Sun Araw’s other material, is that this record doesn’t take as much time laying down its hooks. Instead, Stallones wanders freely, an unshackled experimenter freely exploring the synthesis of his seemingly endless ideas. On album opener “Lucretius,” a glowing base of synth brushes up against scattered Casio beats interrupted by an overdriven, fuzzy bass line. It’s a mesmerizing and challenging opener, signaling a subtle change in Stallones’ approach to creating arrangements. While the loop-based groundwork is still present, it takes a backseat to a more improvisational style of song construction. For some, this may prove to be the biggest obstacle when tackling {Ancient Romans} as repetitive melodies are cut out in favor of freestyle solos and jarring moments of dissonance. For others, though, Stallones consistently rewards patience with a kaleidoscope of expressions fighting for attention within the arrangement.

On “Crete,” a reverb-heavy keyboard line clashes alongside bent electric guitar strings and Stallones’ occasional wail, acting more as another layer of sound than a discernable melody. The track slowly builds on itself over its nine minutes until the layers of sound converge into a messy but cathartic climax. “Lute and Lyre” shows more restraint, reveling in hollow bass riffs and a mellow lead guitar, while “At Delphi” is appropriately bombastic as Stallones creates an impenetrable wall of sound that brilliantly blends his psychedelic aesthetic with a modern tinge of noise rock.

Though Ancient Romans does have its underwhelming moments – “Trireme” is especially flat in its execution when compared to the rest of the record – this is an album that’s relentless in its toeing and pushing of genre boundaries. While the experiments may not always have an identifiable destination, the reward lies in being along for the ride. Listening to Stallones craft a guitar solo, building individual elements with contrasting precision and abandon, is like witnessing the entirety of the creative process in one feel swoop, from conception through to final product. We’re the bystanders who get to observe the fleshing out of sporadic ideas. Like the ruins of the city its title evokes, Ancient Romans is an expansive, ambitious record with a plethora of possibilities hidden in every corner of its soundscape.

by Kyle Fowle

Key Tracks: Crete

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