The Upshot: One of more satisfying electronic recordings in recent memory, a deft balancing act between ambient experimental music, dark psychedelia and pulsing Krautrock.
BY FRED MILLS
Background info first: Until a few years ago, Chester Hawkins operated under the nom du rawk of Blue Sausage Infant, a well-regarded though very much under the radar D.C. experimental outfit that commenced operations around 1985 (specialty: musique concrete and loop-collage, we are advised) and ultimately closing up shop with 2012’s Manitou CD. By that point, Hawkins had expanded his palette considerably, delving into kosmiche psych, drone, ambient, and noise, elements that continue to inform him as a solo artist. 2014 and 2015 saw the release of Semisolids and Apostasy Suite, respectively, via his own Intangible Arts imprint. Now comes Natural Causes, Hawkins’ soundtrack to the Tim Ashby-directed 2016 indie film Pale Trees, which IMDB.com describes as “Liv spitefully digs up the details about her mother’s early days in Hollywood, a reality the b-list female action figure buried long ago. The consequences of Liv’s mischief are not just haunting, but incapacitating, and cause profound transformations throughout the family.”
As of this writing, there doesn’t appear to be a trailer posted to YouTube for the film, but it must be said, knowledge about, or even an awareness of, the film is definitely not necessary for a full appreciation of the soundtrack, which comprises two long (21 minutes plus) tracks, each titled “Pale Trees” and taking up sides A and B of this vinyl album. (Hashtag “#vinyl” of course/)
For one thing—just to single out the first side—the music has a slow-building intensity, ebbing and flowing in places but steadily pushing the bar forward. Midway through, a series of ominous pulses, radar-type pings, and almost hymnal-in-tone drones shimmer into earshot, elevating the psychological tension; after that, there’s a lengthy denouement wherein the components gradually slip away, leaving only an echo of a pulse and a haunting synth swirl. Side B picks up where A left off, to a degree, although this time some of the motorik pulsing has a cello-like texture (it’s possibly a “violated lapsteel” if one is to believe the credits), and the track gradually shifts its POV to more of a space-rock, almost Prog, vibe—the listener feels as if he or she has been cast adrift from a interplanetary vessel, floating alone in the vast cosmos. It all builds to a thumping, percussion-infused climax (closing credits sequence, perhaps?) that leaves you perspiring and realizing you’ve been holding your breath for an unknown number of minutes.
One reviewer’s highly subjective descriptors aside, Natural Causes is ultimately one of more satisfying electronic recordings in recent memory, a deft balancing act between ethereal ambiance and liberating rock. “Natural,” indeed.
DOWNLOAD: At two tracks clocking in at 22:10 and 21:50, best just to grab the entire vinyl LP (a limited edition, although it’s also available digitally), and listen to it from start to finish. It’ll be the best ¾ of an hour you’ll spend listening to music in this still relatively young New Year.