William Basinski’s compositions have long been categorized as ambient out of sheer convenience, but the tag does little to explain the unsettling nature of his work. Tape loops theoretically lock his extended songs into set patterns, but the dense layering of each seconds-long fragment quickly overwhelms to the point that your mind starts playing tricks on you. Is that a new piece of music emerging from the squall, or are you just imagining things to create a sense of narrative progression out of the repetition? Basinski doesn’t chase the melancholy and fear of dark ambient, but his music can still be more disturbing than its more antagonistic colleagues.

His latest release, Cascade, has a somewhat misleading title. It is not the sound of waves crashing ashore with elegant calm. Rather, it conjures the ocean far away from any strip of land, out where choppy surfaces and overcast skies carry just a bit more dread. A twinkling piano roll becomes a tiny ship rolling over waves that mean no harm but never hide their ability to smash the vessel into driftwood at a moment’s notice. Around this refrain, echoes of gentle white noise howl in deep background, the sound of wind rippling over the water, or of whales moaning below it. For the length of both sides of a slab of vinyl, the track continues to undulate over these basic building blocks, yet somehow it gives the impression of being far more complex.

Cascade isn’t the exquisite corpse game that some of Basinski’s works are. It lacks the surprise of his more adventurous sonic juxtapositions and modulations, remaining instead in the original groove and varying most by shifting dynamics. Ever, ever so slowly, the volume in one loop ebbs while another rises, so subtle that the change can take minutes to fully reveal itself. A complementary piano line gradually bulges out of the main sketch before splitting off like a self-reproducing cell. Halfway in, the trilling fade-out seems to take up more and more space in the loop, leading each segment to hang in the air for an extra second. It’s as if that ship were now riding through a storm and sat at the top of each cresting wave for a moment of perilous doubt, on the verge of capsizing every few seconds.

To further prove the malleability of this gripping approach, Basinski releases the album alongside The Deluge, a live rendition of the same material where he shows off the fuller range embedded within his limited expression. Here, Basinski feeds the loops through variable feedback effects that stretch and contort the music, further developing both its relaxing interludes and the menace that burbles underneath. The accompanying live document offers one of the best opportunities to quickly spot the strengths of Basinski’s work. By presenting a 40-minute track with what is effectively a remix, the musician makes a strong case for himself not simply as a technician assembling sounds, but a true composer with one of the best ears for structure in modern music.

by Jake Cole

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