Wastelanders, Cosmic Despair

Droning ruminations on organ and guitar carve out a deep space just under an hour long on Wastelanders’ second release, Cosmic Despair. Despite the names of both artist and disc, the work isn’t dense and dark and disturbing. Rather, Dean Costello coaxes out slow-moving, pensive soundscapes with a slightly dark tone that lightens over time. There are no harsh edges or blasts of grit here, just big, cloudy masses of thought turned to sound and set to drift waywardly through your head. A solid low end ties the listener back to the ground. Costello opens the set with the thick, bass-laden, hang-in-the-air organ chords of “The Beginning,” then shifts, abruptly but effectively, to their airy, higher counterparts for “Abstraction.” There’s a wonderful sense of patience at work; these sounds arc gently and hold their space as they fade. The title track rides on beautiful, gently wavering waveforms, the tone suggesting melancholy without falling fully into it. This feel of patience weaves through all these tracks, and is particularly effective on the two longest, “Expanding Mental Universe” and “The Crossing.” “Expanding…” is built on a sort of Morse Code-style set of notes, soft beeps that leave their trail in a light echo, the remnant sounds interacting through their individual fades. Costello gives it a sense of room-depth; the tones feel like they’re bouncing off distant walls. The sound has that sort of hollowness that comes from large spaces. The tones eventually grind upward into the roughest stretch of the disc, an over-amped, distorted crush of guitar sound. The dichotomy works as the softer tones continue beneath and the rough sounds take charge. This is as close to dark ambient as Cosmic Despair gets. In “The Crossing,” he takes the intriguing route of playing a very straightforward and improvisation-sounding guitar line over light synth washes. It creates an in-the-moment feel, the playing occasionally seeming hesitant as Costello picks his way through. Tapping percussion helps mark time and brings a little more depth as well. Again, there are points where Costello cranks up the distortion but pushes the easier side through, expecting you to follow, then brings the disc overall to a soft close on his drones.

Cosmic Despair came as a pleasant surprise to me, and I think this can be seen as a problem for the artist when it comes to pushing the piece out to the listening world. Nothing about the way this disc is presented, from names to packaging to disc art, accurately conveys what’s going on here musically. The superficial expectation–and first impressions do count–is of the cloying noise and assaultive sonic behaviors of dark ambient. Instead, what awaits is well-designed, drone-based movement through textured, shadowy spaces that for the most part aren’t all that dark, emerging into an interesting, lighter but still captivating zone.

Available at Glorious Wasteland.

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