Solidifies their position among contemporary composers as makers of complex, transportive music.
Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie’s A Winged Victory for the Sullen has occupied a top position in the contemporary classical/ambient crossover scene of the last decade. Geared more toward the latter than the former, the duo nonetheless quickly established themselves as thoughtful crafters of elegant orchestral/electronic music, using ample space and gentle direction to give shape to their warm tone clusters and minimal compositions. The Undivided Five, their first studio album in five years and first release since their 2017 score for God’s Own Country, finds the pair taking inspiration from the work of Claude Debussy. That’s scarcely a surprising reference point; Debussy has long been acknowledged as the classical forerunner to ambient music, with his careful compositions belying the tranquil nature of much of his work. Still, if O’Halloran and Wiltzie mine a well-worn touchstone for the genre, they do so with their own keen eye for crafting transportive, if dense, music.
The duo tips their hats immediately to the French composer with opener “Our Lord Debussy,” which gradually mutates from a simple piano pattern into a fuller and fuller tone poem. Strings enter with looping motions as synths conjure the tone of sunrise on a cold winter day, all pure white light on wisps of mist. Over the course of the track’s 10 minutes, these elements slowly shift around each other, the synths diving deep into Reznor/Ross territory of low whirring, only to crest again in sunlight. Even the lighter side of ambient these days tends to drift into darker territory, and the consistency with which O’Halloran and Wiltzie bring the composition back to its bright beginnings makes the track blissful, particularly in its orchestral outro.
Elsewhere, the album traverses some of the various genres that this style has permeated over the last few decades. The mournful violin of “The Slow Descent Has Begun,” underpinned by tasteful synth fills, could have been lifted straight off a Godspeed You! Black Emperor release, while the amusingly titled “Aqualung, Motherfucker” sounds like pure kosmische of the Klaus Schulze/Popol Vuh variety, inverting expectations by using the strings as a groaning, grounding element to the flitting explorations of ethereal, future-primitive synth pulses. The Debussy connection is reaffirmed with the brief piano interlude “The Haunted Victorian Pencil,” which deftly bridges the more modern reference points with the album’s source inspiration in a pointed reminder that modern trends have deep roots.
Yet even when one separates The Undivided Five from its complex web of ambient breadcrumbs, the album stands as an exemplary display of contemporary ambient crossover. “Sullen Sonata” rises out of a howl of distant synthesizers into a gloomy reverie punctured by a swell of strings that crescendos out of the darkness into ringing plateaux. “Adios, Florida” sparkles like light refracting off of ocean waves before drifting out to deep sea on sustained strings and distended synths. “The Rhythm of a Dividing Pair” may be the finest thing that O’Halloran and Wiltzie have put their names to as collaborators. A front-mixed synth chime rings out like a gentle morning alarm as day breaks over the composition, a wall of white noise that sounds peaceful rather than tense. One of the album’s simplest tracks, it’s nonetheless the epitome of the duo’s mastery of emotion, the climax of The Undivided Five’s morning atmosphere.
If, as the saying goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, writing about ambient or ambient-adjacent is an even more futile task. The components of The Undivided Five could scarcely be more basic, to the point that O’Halloran and Wiltzie pieced together the tracks from their respective homes in Berlin and Brussels. Yet they assemble their warm synths, bleary textures and deceptively complex arrangements with a cohesion that adds up to a unified feeling of contentment that never feels contrived or simplistic. With their latest, A Winged Victory for the Sullen solidify their position among contemporary composers like Nils Frahm as makers of complex, transportive music.