Each of Dominic Razlaff’s albums as DR puzzles me further and further—in fact his work may be the most enigmatic and idiosyncratic of any minimal drone artist I’ve ever heard. By that I mean: he is just as likely to craft the simplest chord out of a few sustained tones and call it a song as he is to put together several complexly layered and clustered tones played on several synths or acoustic instruments accompanied by various samples and have these parts move and shift and build for several minutes before fading away—and call that a song. So when I sit down to listen to a new DR album for the first time, I actually have very little idea of what I am about to hear, other than that it will probably be some kind of drone, and of course, that it will be good. That said, typically the musical palette remains consistent within a given album, and Melancholie is exceptional insofar as each song changes its respective compositional method slightly, building off the last. It begins with a strictly drone track, and then moves outside that boundary. It begins as strictly synthetic, and then breaks that rule too. Indeed it is the most eclectic collection I have heard from DR thus far, and for that reason, I’m interested in taking a closer look in this review.
Indeed, opener “Erster April” relegates its musical palette to maybe one or two synths playing probably around eight different tones with varying modulation. The pitch and complexity of the drone builds over the first eight minutes and then slowly calms down. This is a relatively normal track for DR—it may be on the darker side of his catalogue, but its simplicity and purity is at least somewhat predictable. However, it does not prepare you for the punches thrown on the rest of the album.
“Mannog Pu Erh” is a chord-based, guitar-driven drone/dream-pop track à la Von-era Sigur Rós, which builds (not unlike “Hún Jörð”) into something quite close to shoegaze in its noisy, overload-all-the-inputs kind of glory—an almost heavenly glory that I can really only compare to Final or Justin Broadrick’s other work. This approach will be used again later, although with different results. For example the third track, “Luftschloss,” begins with only soft, sorrowful, reverbed-out acoustic string instrument (perhaps a guitar, maybe something similar), but a fading-in overdrive effect slowly overtakes the track’s sweetness. It decomposes into a noisy mess over the next ten minutes. By the end, the overdrive has taken control of the mix without upsetting the reflective mood of the piece as a whole. The overdrive is pulled back slightly before the track comes to a close. The last song, “Melancholie,” also involves a string instrument as the lead mode of composition, but you might not even know it by how low it sits under the fiery cacophony of effects. Again, we return to something quite close to drone in the strictest sense, but only because the noise merely hinted at earlier on the album has become so destructive it overtakes the melancholy: whatever instrument has been used, it’s playing defined notes and a simple melody, but only a semblance of that musicality permeates through the discord.
So then what about the formal, compositional qualities of this album makes it Melancholie, so to speak? Well first, there certainly aren’t any halcyonic moments to contradict the title—all of the tracks are at best surviving their sadness, and at worst they are menacingly despairing. Sometimes the aforementioned overdrive distortion and noise builds to some kind of cathartic exultation—but if anything that exulted state is but a basking in the waters of sorrow, a quiet peace before the inevitable drowning. This is what I call “heavenly glory” above: the kind of glory that only prefigures one’s inevitable return to the earth. That is to say, for me, this is an incredibly sad album, perhaps DR at his most gloomy.
But how does one reconcile the album’s changing instrumentation and variegated compositional method with this solitary thematic unity? Perhaps one leaves it be: melancholy is itself variegated. It is filled with internal strife and conflict—it is equal parts anger and dejection, fear and exultation, reflection and action. Melancholie’s own internal musical animus—and attendant imperfections—seek to and successfully capture its titular feeling, or feelings.
By Isak McCune