English and Basinski have run the gamut of literary references and the emotional spectrum.
“Mono no aware” is one of those handy, infinitely frustrating phrases that really needs a direct English translation. The best we can get from Japanese is something like “the awareness of impermanence.” It’s supposed to convey melancholy, acceptance and a bit of beauty. Unsurprisingly electronic and ambient artists love it. The Mono No Aware compilation, for instance, from Yves Tumor, Mya Gomez and Family Battle Snake was an appropriately ethereal listen. But the “Mono No Aware” that serves as half of William Basinski and Lawrence English’s new album, Selva Oscura, seems to draw more from Ken Liu’s short story of the same name, which starts with the world ending in fiery-asteroid fashion and closes with the last remnants of humanity hurtling through space.
Neither Basinski or English are new to this sort of emotional warfare. Even beyond the 9/11-tied The Disintegration Loops, Basinski also has Melancholia, which, I mean, wears its tone right there on the tin. English appears to be the statelier of the two, reining in Basinski’s more melodramatic tendencies, whether they be pranks or sobs. Not that he’s completely able to contain him. “Mono No Aware,” stretching out for 19 minutes, has a few glitches in the system. Last year’s excellent A Shadow in Time was Basinski’s dedication to David Bowie, even throwing in a cheeky saxophone solo among the synth waves. Here he also adds in layers of low, rumbling and rubbery sounds that suspiciously approximate brass. English takes it in stride through, carefully molding the ebbing crescendos that sneak into place rather than erupt. “Mono No Aware” has two distinct climaxes over its languid run. The first is a proper cloudburst of sound, all angelic hums and distant choruses singing together in rising harmony. The second is a much tamer, more tender bloom, and it might be more impactful as a result. The first dynamic break is what you expect in the contour of an ambient song, the second is unanticipated and cuts out before it can truly burst into sonic glory.
The title track is the duo lurking into darker territory. “Selva Oscura” is a reference to the forest that Dante and Virgil were bumming around, so transcendence and death abound. Though it also feeds off big, buzzing climaxes, the smaller moments are more telling. In the first half, a sliver of harsh noise rattles through the hum. It builds momentum until it sounds like the corrupted audio of a subway train rolling by. It’s an eerie found-sound to place in this mesh of distinctly inhuman noises, creating a scene where the cars run by with no passengers, no stops, just riding into oblivion. At the very end, we get a dark nod to Basinski’s old tape work. As the hisses fade, there’s a minor freak-out, like a record getting stuck in a scratched-up loop. It almost comes as a surprise that English and Basinski don’t somehow stretch this out into infinity, scaring the hell out of any space cadets listening. Between the somber/hope duality of “Mono No Aware” and the post-apocalyptic vibes of “Selva Oscura,” English and Basinski have run the gamut of literary references and the emotional spectrum. Despite the Japanese translation, impermanence seems distant in this time-free sound.