Over the course of this decade, Ian William Craig has quietly been amassing one of the most consistent discographies in contemporary drone music. His unique mixture of operatic singing and lo-fi noise collages already sets him apart from most of his contemporaries, and the vivid emotions buried beneath the clutter are the thing that tips his work from great to awe-inspiring. After a comparatively long break of a year-and-a-half, Craig returns with Thresholder, easily one of the densest—though also one of the finest—works of his career.

Even though it can feel less inviting than the song-based material on 2016’s Centres, Thresholder is nothing if not a further solidification of Craig’s unmatched abilities. His use of harmony is more nuanced, his sound construction denser and his vocal melodies more evocative. Craig has almost entirely eschewed discernable lyrics here, placing the focus entirely on the expressive quality of his singing. Thankfully, he uses this lack of linguistic context to fully explore the limits of wordless vocals: The “oohs” and “ahs” find every corner of possible emotions to occupy, actually finding more nuance in their ambiguity.

The defining quality of Thresholder, then, is its dynamic and emotional diversity. Instead of placidly hovering around a inobtrusive middle ground, Craig’s music here spans a breadth from unnerving quiet to overwhelming grandiosity. He shows the extremes of each in just the first two tracks, opening the album with the patient “Elided.” The track pits an eerie, subterranean drone against Craig’s silky voice and highlights the album’s key contrast between terror and beauty. The tape hiss in the back reads as dissonant and foreboding, but the singing is a barely visible light cutting through the grimness.

“Elided,” though gloriously intimate, does nothing to prepare the listener for the following track, “Some Absolute Means.” It’s a complete explosion of sound, with booming organ tones bleeding across the mix and fading into one huge mass. Rarely does sound floor this listener this heavily, and rarely are dynamics this quickly contrasted. It feels almost kitschy to follow a deeply contemplative track with one that expresses itself in an unnamable physicality, but Craig’s music moves beyond its potential clichés. “Some Absolute Means” is instead a welcome moment of passion before the album delves into headier material later.

In keeping with how massive “Some Absolute Means” feels, there’s a sense of tangible space that permeates Thresholder. “Idea for Contradiction 1” is the least cluttered piece here, and Craig’s voice becomes the uninterrupted focal point. After what sounds like water dripping from a stalactite in an empty cave, the vocals enter clear and confident. The cavernous reverb surrounding Craig sounds like the product of a natural echo rather than a studio enhancement, and the harmonic climax towards the middle of the track is one of the most chilling moments here. It’s the direct opposite of grandiosity; It’s lonesome sorrow, with Craig singing his woes into an abyss.

The flipside of this exploitation of emptiness is the crippling claustrophobia that mars other tracks. “Discovered in Flat” consists mostly of Craig’s distorted voice and an encompassing tape sound made to resemble wind, but the effect is one of weightlessness. It’s not a transcendent flight, though, as it sounds more like the storm beneath the singer is threatening to tear through all physicality it encounters. Through simple, though not to be understated, techniques like EQ and reverb, Craig is able to manipulate his position in the center of these tracks. Where before he was the actor, here he’s the victim of a totalizing force beyond his control.

Save a necessary break for a record flip, the album flows seamlessly from one track to the next through the use of jumpy tape loops and other mechanic sounds. This recurring gimmick would grow old if each one wasn’t so perfectly suited for the music that proceeds and follows it. There are times, like on “The Last Wesbrook Lament,” where it sounds like a degrading recording caught in an end groove. It’s pleasing and almost nostalgic, the foil to the linking sounds on the previous track “And Therefore the Moonlight.” Here, Craig’s voice is mutilated and spliced, leaving just enough of its original character to retain an eerie almost-humanity.

Thresholder, though less immediate than Craig’s past few releases, is a landmark work for the composer. It shows newfound understandings of texture, space and harmony, and Craig’s vocals have never been more expertly utilized to his advantage. It’s an album that feels more lived in than it does listened to, and it offers endless joys to patient listeners willing to move about its territory and explore these sounds for themselves.

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