Alex Zhang Hungtai is influenced as much by filmmakers as fellow musicians.
Alex Zhang Hungtai is influenced as much by filmmakers as fellow musicians, and it’s not hard to find filmic comparisons in his music: the noir rockabilly cool of David Lynch, the transient searching of Wong Kar-Wai. If you want to, you can use cinema as a starting point for Zhang’s new album Divine Weight, too. It’s hard to imagine him playing back the solemn choirs of “Matrimony” and not thinking of Popol Vuh’s soundtrack to Aguirre: The Wrath of God, with its uncanny choir organs. And the puffs of saxophone on “Pierrot” and “This Is Not My Country” might suggest the Stygian steam issuing from deep beneath Taxi Driver’s New York.
But Divine Weight is concerned with a deeper level of projection than what cameras can capture and regurgitate. “To believe is to project a certain reality onto the external world,” says a Bandcamp blurb, and in a recent Fader interview, Zhang seems preoccupied with ghosts: those that inhabit the empty streets of Taipei at 5 a.m., for instance, or that exist between the buildings of Hong Kong’s Yaumatei district, a place where there is “no space for anything to survive”—but where Zhang did, for three months. Ghosts probably don’t exist, but if you’re drifting through deserted city streets on a moped on acid at 5 a.m., it’s easy enough to believe.
The five tracks here are ghosts in their own way. In the four years since hanging up his best-known moniker Dirty Beaches, Zhang made the saxophone his primary instrument. Many of these tracks come from the stem files of incomplete compositions, which Zhang further distorted until the saxophone began to resemble something else entirely—the scraping of a violin, perhaps, or a particularly distorted guitar. Like dub or skeletal R&B, this music benefits from the empty space. Maybe they could have been neatly woven into pop songs like on early Dirty Beaches releases like Badlands. But free of structural constraints, they seem to expand.
Divine Weight is short, but it deepens dramatically, beginning as it does with the shorter tracks—the pneumatic “Pierrot” and the holy “Matrimony”—and yielding to longer cuts like the seven-minute “This Is Not My Country” and the title track, which takes up more than half the record’s runtime. (“Yaumatei” is a short, ghostly interstitial, only four minutes.) It’s a rare treat to hear an album that seems to open onto infinity like Divine Weight does, especially one so short. Ambient and ambient-adjacent albums in the 40-minute ballpark often feel insubstantial.
But if Divine Weight feels longer than it is, it’s not always a positive; this is a tough listen bordering on endurance-test territory. “Divine Weight” in particular refuses to yield over 20 minutes of tempestuous church organs that groan and grumble and perpetually threaten to detune. One wondering if our film-buff hero hasn’t been watching a lot of Béla Tarr and Robert Bresson lately, so delightfully does this music seem to challenge what we want out of “entertainment.” If you want peace and placidity from mood music, this isn’t your neck of the woods. But for those with a prepared, patient ear, this stuff might have you believing in ghosts.