The Slaves – Spirits of the SunPosted by Richard Potsubay
“Textured soundscapes”. “Abstract sonic sculptures”. “Densely-layered aural collages”. All of these descriptors are appropriate when applied to the four compositions on Spirits of the Sun, the latest release by the Portland-based duo, The Slaves. Though the sounds that members Barbara Kinzle and Birch Cooper make are painstakingly composed and arranged, their formula for performing them is decidedly minimalist. A guitar and synth are almost the only things heard here, with selectively-occurring muted vocal choruses to remind listeners that this music is actually made by humans. (There is no percussion of any sort.) Spirits of the Sun’s four tracks are lengthy but the overall running time of album is (wisely) short, barely over thirty minutes.
One of the record’s most flattering distinctions is its tonal progression, a thematic journey that could be best described as “light into darkness”. The first half of the record is ethereal and airy, while the second half is more claustrophobic and dense. The opener, the appropriately titled “1111″, begins with some digitally processed chanted choruses. While these haunting vocals retain their intensity, they are soon joined by a squall of electronic white noise, which eventually completely drowns out everything. The next track, “River”, adopts a similar formula, its biggest difference being that it ends on an ominously quieter note, setting the mood for what lies ahead. The two songs that do, “The Field” and “Born into Light”, are more organic, more analogue-sounding–and much darker. Together, they reflect some of the album’s strengths, but also its weaknesses. During each of the song’s first halves, the artful blending of distorted minor chords and otherworldly synth parts generates some serious melodic intensity. One is reminded of artists as disparate as the Wedding Present, Tangerine Dream, and Neil Young (particularly his little-heard 1991 experimental release, Arc) and can envision this music as the perfect soundtrack for all manner of cerebral sci-fi films about futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopias. But alas, to quote Yeats, “the center cannot hold”. With the absence of rhythmic variation and instrumental diversity, the songs drag on… and on. An inescapable sameness and homogeny creeps in, and It all just bleeds together as one monotonous abstraction after a while, making it a challenge for many to reach its conclusion.
Music that is challenging does not always have to be inaccessible. Consider John Coltrane’s Om, or Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. While hardly to be described as radio-friendly, these records, and the artists who created them, took risks, confounding all that was considered safe and familiar in contemporary music, and still managed to find armies of fans and admirers. But creating difficult music for the masses is something that rarely occurs successfully in popular music. It is a tricky feat to pull off, and unfortunately, the Slaves don’t do that here. Almost everyone who prizes originality and artistic integrity will at least walk away from the Spirits of the Sun in full agreement that The Slaves are good at what they do. But the question is, will everyone want to hear them do it? To fans of ambient and experimental music, Spirits of the Sun will be an enticing world to get lost in. To many others, it will be grating, new-agey background noise, the indie equivalent of a Windham Hill record. As overused as the phrase “it’s not for everybody” is, it’s an unavoidable one regarding any discussion of this album.