Albums of the Decade: Lusine – A Certain Distance (Ghostly International, 2009)

A Certain Distance

There’s always an album that we can point to and say “there, that was the moment”; at the turn of 2010, Lusine’s A Certain Distance found its way to me and changed how I consumed music thereafter. If it wasn’t for this record, I wouldn’t be writing this and HearFeel wouldn’t be here, so I owe a lot to this album. Aside from being just an all-round consistently great record that hovers somewhere between IDM, Downtempo & Ambient Techno, it may be the one that seems to match my flaws the most as it bounces through John McIlwain’s struggles in social anxiety.

This concern permeates the fabric of the record from the music through to the beautiful radial enclosure of the album artwork, although it winds through peaks and troughs. Much of its expression comes through in the vocoder, of which it seems John supplies his own voice for; lost in electronic processing he often seems to become part of the sonic landscape, his voice more of an instrument of the music rather than a discrete and clear entity aside from it. Opener “Operation Costs” expresses this right from the outset, its minimal techno workings supplementing these intrinsically ingrained yet enigmatic offerings, a few sentences that undulate in repetitive swellings as though trying to steel one’s self. This repetitious vocoder usage is most obvious in penultimate piece “Crowded Room”, thus almost bookending the album with his anxious musings, the light beat structures trying to play off a man wracked by nerves, words barely discernible through the robotic chantings:

“Just a room with people in it,

Just a crowded room.

I’ve been dreaming

That I can do this”

Elsewhere, “Thick of It” smears its mushy and distal voices out in amidst lush and heady beats, the mechanical and relentless drive of the world around it avoiding its amorphous and unconformable shape, whilst its precursor “Tin Hat” falls as an album highlight in its paranoid skitterings. Sandwiched by the distant sounds of a buzzing, faceless crowd it bobs along on fragile and hushed bleeping synth loops, these little off-kilter flurries caught in a web of claustrophobic and suffocating techno empowerment that seems to drive by so effortlessly yet we seemingly aren’t able to fit within.

It’s not all gloomy though, and maybe I’m making it sound darker than it actually is; most of this record is very easygoing and belies its true feelings, even in the aforementioned heavier pieces. Juxtaposing John’s mysterious vocoder anomalies are the female led pieces which offer an intriguing clarity within this world. “Two Dots” is the obvious powerhouse, with Vilja Larjosto’s haunting voice melting out of the fractal percussion, singing enigmatically of possible romantic troubles before eroding into fragmentary coos back into the clipped synths and woozy drone lines, only to appear again a little later in the bleary relief of “Twilight”. Lost in tinkling flurries of wet synth mush, this alone we’re time with Vilja’s beautiful voice which seems to eclipse not just the album’s woes but also the golden light of the waning day.

The record’s interior pieces to follow are some of its more conventional, as “Baffle” leads out in almost dancefloor-ready sequences of surging, dry bass juxtaposing the early piano against a confusing myriad of brief textural inclusions. It turns into the cheeky yet subdued  “Every Disguise”; slow to find its feet in echoic and sparse beginnings it eventually changes character and becomes a bit more outgoing in its slappy hi-hats and wavy static pulses, possibly finding its feet thanks to the alcoholic lubrication of suggestive followup “Double Vision” and its playful, bouncy atmosphere filled with skittering electronic purrs, clipped guitar warmth and jaunty tambourine shimmies to help it feel more at ease. Caitlin Sherman also makes a brief appearance in the vocoder warpings of thrumming “Gravity”; filled with a faint air of resignation closer to John’s moments it’s one of the more enigmatic and downbeat pieces, but it’s still got a curious groove despite that.

There isn’t a moment here the album could do without, no piece that doesn’t further the emotional course of the record and help develop a sense of identity. Despite the overwhelming feeling behind this record (which Lusine does a good job of scurrying under the carpet), it never feels like it’s imposing or demanding on the listener, never feeling like it’s burdening us with sentiment. No, this has the perfect balance between a fine and downtempo electronic record for casual listening as well as a deeply heartfelt and introspective powerhouse, but only if you choose to make that investment. There are very few records I would refer to as being perfect, but this is certainly one of them.

Albums of the Decade will return with 2008 on March 1st