John Davis: Ask the Dust

davis_dustI’m not sure I can accurately tell you what’s going on in John Davis’ Ask the Dust, but I can tell you that I’ve been listening to it a lot. A filmmaker by trade, Davis brings a definite sense of atmosphere and movement to the five pieces here–two mid-length tracks and three shorter ones–and loads his spaces with fine details. The music here is largely impressionistic, built on carefully curated noise and transmogrified instrumentation, tenuously layered so that it sometimes collapses into tangles of sound. But when it does so, it’s to recreate the moment in a fresh form. As far afield as Davis may go in his works, the listener never feels completely removed from some hint of melodic structure. Often it’s vague, more a memory than something tangible, but it still exists. This lets the work stand up to close examination, and it consistently reveals itself to be deeply intricate while pushing at its own borders. The two long tracks are the draw here, although each of the fives pieces are solid. The longer ones feel broken into movements. Sometimes the shifts are subtle, sometimes they are abrupt, and in the course of each track, both transitional elements are employed. In “Superpartner,” Davis works the flow in several stages,  from calm and quiet passages that rise out of downplayed electronics to sharp, angular clusters built from analog squabble and static. Between there are sparse spaces that echo with neglect, the sounds of forgotten things blowing in a breeze, and distorted loops that mumble meditatively over specks of electronic detritus.  “Synecdoche” comes in on a straightforward piano melody, but if you’ve been listening, you know it’s not going to stay that way. (And let it be noted, the piano playing is excellent, full of tone and emotion.) Here’s where one of the good abrupt shifts hits; it literally sounds like Davis stops and pushes things over, gets up and leaves. From there we fall into a gentle, drone-based zone, perhaps Davis’ most ambient stretch of the disc. For someone who’s spent most of the album surrounded by jagged, culled sounds, he handles this side very well. The softness is a bit of a surprise, as is an uplifting swell that surges in around the 7-minute mark, carried on a deeply resonant bass tone. Davis maneuvers this into his into his next phase smoothly, coating it in a brief spot of shadow in transition. It passes briefly through another of those abandoned spaces, rasping and grating and tainted with a distinct sense of unease, before ending in a lighter space with echo-coated piano and a high drone that sounds like a mutated tambura. This track absolutely mesmerizes me. The shorter pieces are also noteworthy. “Joy Meridian” begins as a quiet drone and grows into something raw and gorgeously over-amped; “Palestrina” feels like a take of spacemusic, with glittering sequencer lines over long pads and light touches of distortion. “Julian Wind” rides on a bagpipe-like sound, washed over with hissing static and a swirl of background sound. Davis ushers us out with an unusual sound bite of a woman, clearly hypnotized, talking about her life on another planet and lamenting that it “wasn’t full enough.” It’s just weird enough to be the right ending for this excursion.

It has taken me some time to find a way to encapsulate the work on Ask the Dust. It’s one of those “dancing about architecture” moments for me as a reviewer. This has lead me to leave the piece on loop for several hours at a time. It doesn’t wear out its welcome, and seems to keep revealing new layers depending upon when and how closely I’m listening. The attention to minute detail is excellent, and the release has a solid emotional through-line. It becomes something you need to hear all the way through. An excellent release from John Davis.

Available from Students of Decay.

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