Symbol – Online Architecture (Holodeck Records, 2014)

Sitting in front of the sea yesterday I received my annual reminder of the resilient, unchanging nature of the ocean. Every hour of every minute of every day for billions of years, the only thing that’s remained constant is the assured slapping of waves on the shore the world over, and one can take comfort in the knowledge that it seems unlikely that this will change anytime soon. But Christopher King’s debut album Online Architecture under his new Symbol alias couldn’t be further from this, filling it with anxious and lonely drones inspired by the empty ghost cities of China, ready to accept the rapidly swelling population, a sign of the accelerating change and ongoing impact of human life on the Earth.

The opener “Tracer” is, oddly enough, the most incongruous piece of the album and the start point of our journey. Not unlike some of the constructions that we’re used to Constellation Tatsu churning out it’s filled with warbling psychedelia; arpeggiated synth lines and miscellaneous flickering electronica cruise, jar and stutter their way through the mix, the distant and fading thrum and flow of traffic in the urban centres. It slips away suddenly and the last vestiges of the chaotic but somehow structured opener disappear to be engulfed by hollow and empty drones, wallowing in deep layers of reverb and cassette fuzz. There’s a sense of familiarity present; bowed under the obfuscating processing, the buildings rise out of the mist devoid of life.

This ghostly realm and its serenity may have initially caught us off guard but the gorgeous “Syn Cron” arrives in cathartic rushes of wailing, luminous currents of distended guitar instrumentation, every pulse cutting through the melancholic drones before they finally converge, with acceptance of these astonishing and bizarre entities being granted to us. It’s a resistant process though and always feels a little uncomfortable, a little off-kilter and unbalanced, anxious. It welcomes the appropriately titled “New China”, a crossover piece of its two predecessors with fragmental guitar noises scratching out their own grooves through the delicate and placid, but dystopic, drones below. It’s short too, a fleeting glimpse into the heart of the Chinese industrial vision.

Penultimate track “Clear Passage” just melts into view after “New China” and once more feeds off of the ethereal loneliness of “Shadow Harvesting” but now with just a meagre hint of promise and hopefulness following the previously crushing emptiness. That’s not to say that it doesn’t still possess a sense of unshakeable melancholy, because it does, still not quite able to shake off the depressing nature of these quiet concrete behemoths standing idle. And before we know it the closer is on top of us: “Lineage”. As the longest track of the album it’s afforded the certain luxury of being the most carefully and slowly built up of all the pieces; languid waves of some unnameable instrument eak out of the historic abyss and lap like waves in the echoic void slowly and deliberately. Muted harmonium effortlessly takes over as it goes on, billowy ebbs of lightweight drone that slowly drown out the timeless and previously unchanging course of nature with their own soft, sweetly innocent song.

There’s a quiet angst here that’s deeply uncomfortable with the notion of disrupting the natural order of things, with the purposeful disregard for nature in pursuit of supposed human foresight that has so far failed to metabolise, that we find in China’s unfilled, abandoned cities, eagerly awaiting the day they find themselves populated. But that is the sound of human development and encroachment onto the world, the sound of forced and unnatural change being slipped in under the guise of necessity for our continued survival and expansion. King’s discomfort is palpable and that’s what makes this record so hauntingly beautiful, especially given that everything is carved out of the beautiful but now aged technology of cassettes; King wants to make sure we know that this change is unsustainable and that we shouldn’t be so placid about its occurrence. Just an incredible record, definitely a contender for an upper spot for this year’s list.