Willamette – Diminished Composition (Scissor Tail Records, 2016)

The canal froze over today; I didn’t think it’d ever get cold enough this Winter for us to see it happen but it did, and now it’s reduced to nothing but a functionless expanse of ice, its surface paved with flowery fractal patterns, joints, bubbles and cracks all adding to its complexity as it sits there motionless under a pristine blue sky and pale, cool Winter Sun. That self contained, self affecting watery highway reminds me somewhat of Willamette and their first record in four years, Diminished Composition; after a few strong showings back in 2011 and 2012 they fell off the radar, froze over and left us stranded and immobile until they warmed back up. That slow, unwinding process has left a graceful and poetically crystalline, if emotionally diffuse, album in its wake.

It always feels like a cop-out to compare ambient music to Stars of the Lid, lazy most of the time, but here it’s rather apt; immediately “Inland Empire” softly heaves in stringed drone grandeur that can only ever be reminiscent of SotL’s orchestral motions, like a fog breaking over hills and lakes to a pleasant and rich Sun rising someplace both far away and intimately close as a tentative piano spins out some minute affectations. “Brief Moments of Long Term Doubt” has a deeply familiar overarching sound too in its indistinct pulsing waves of diffuse drone onlappings, slowly easing away instituted fugues in luxuriously calm and fluffy movements. It’s part of a trio of somewhat shorter pieces that seem to hold the strongest Lid ties, alongside the distant and non-committal emotional ambiguities of “Four Films (Films Four)” as it churns in distant indistinctness and almost melancholic drone, as well as the impossibly placid depths of  penultimate “Fresnel Variation (for Jeanne Moreau)” as it barely grazes our senses.

Elsewhere we see divergence, although we don’t stray too far from the safeness of the enveloping drone; the stunning “At Length and Dead Horse” descends out of the opener into interminable passages of fragile tape loops, hushed and disjointed whisperings lost in a sea of tape hiss, piano drones and stringed oscillations, pushing this softly insistent love out in mesmerising waves. Its closest companion is the titular closer as it tumbles away into an increasingly obfuscated future, piano strokes lost to tape and the cruising stability of not-being melting into bleary drone strings that just envelop the listener in a fuzzy, but not entirely fulfilling, blanket of sound.

This return to life feels jaded as much as it feels empowered, lost in emotional limbo and complicated sonic uncertainty as it erodes itself back into existence. Soon (not too far away I imagine) the canal outside will unfreeze, its complicated wholeness becoming undone and disappearing back into itself, and that period will be both beautiful and bittersweet to witness, because it’ll be a time when warmth arrives to shepherd away the cold, when life comes back from stasis, but the still perfection of Winter will die away for another year; Willamette make their own return seem similarly so. Pleasantly welcome at their own revival there’s this softly nagging sense of insecurity and uncertainty that underlines everything here; well not to worry because this is one of the best hiatus breakers I’ve heard yet.