Krzysztof Kotlinski – Black Rain

Élan Vital Recordings / 2019

What if someone took all the lessons we learned from glitchbient—that is to say, what if someone emulated its merits (the truly intriguing and unsettling electro-industrial representations of post-modern decay) and rejected its problems (you know what I mean: the pretension and the pop aspirations)—yes and what if someone also took all the lessons we learned from modern classical drone—embracing its spatial continuity and rejecting its glacial motion—yes what if someone took all those lessons we learned and made something, well maybe not new, but still remarkable? Yes, that’s Black Rain. From the outset, its premise, its textural palette, and its painstakingly refined aesthetic sense (crafted over at least seven years) are all absolutely brilliant. It is tonally consistent but diverse in its compositional techniques, depicted in sepia but implying a whole range of colors, subtly expressive but extremely impressive. Listen to five minut—no, thirty seconds of this record and you’ll know what it is and understand what I’m saying. But why is Black Rain so good, and how does it go about painting us into its mottled shades of black? I think typically my review would go into a single track and analyze each instrument: “ok, on ‘Screams From the Sky’ Kotlinski sets the tone immediately with noisy FM white noise over a slightly sped-up sample of a babbling brook followed by an unsettlingly solitary analog synth—a mono synth in harmony with itself in a sinister minor chord—he adds more glitched-out and pitch-bent white noise / sine wave / mono synth samples and sounds which build into a roar, then slightly recoil upon meeting a piano’s tragic, faltering voice, backed by a slow wash…”—and so on. But today I want to speak a bit more to the structure of Kotlinski’s work as an album: its sequencing and pacing and overarching tonal continuity. This sort of discussion is typically reserved for long-play high-concept records far afield from the world of ambient music, but here I would like to perhaps convince you the reader of its importance when designing a truly first-rate drone album.

            The titular opening track is a slow fade from pitch black to pure grey. Two-and-a-half minutes of increasingly atonal drones, then the curtain is pulled back to unveil a Satie-esque piano loop that slowly moves behind increasingly jittery glitchbience. At 5:45 the glitch cuts out, making space for unadulterated drone, which closes the piece. Structurally this song is moves through from fade in, to ascension, to reveal, to drone—followed by a quick noisy cut into “Screams from the Sky” (described above). Now, go back and read how I’ve described “Screams from the Sky” again (or just listen to it), and notice that, while the track uses a very different sonic palette (while not exactly different instruments, drastically different modes of manipulating them), it is actually structurally almost identical to “Black Rain.” But comparatively the third track “Hiding Place” is completely different. It is almost entirely static and loop based; the piano and mild glitches open the piece (instead of close it), and the track only gets emptier from there, escaping into safe solitude. Effectively speaking, this disorients the listener, who is expecting another build-up-tear-down sort of track, and such a change ultimately opens up the album for the many other structural experiments it will carry out. For example, “All My Fears” (track 5) is something like a “variations on a theme”-type drone track, centered around a central set of samples and drones that veer into various places (solo piano, lo-fi drone, melody played on xylophone, key change, etc.) and then return to the center over the song’s eight-and-a-half minute run time. “You’re Not Alone” is a Screams-from-the-Sky type noise-melody-drone song, but its noise is harsh and industrially jarring (very different from much of the rest of the album) and the drone is a complete black hole (probably the quietest two minutes of the record). “Please Don’t Go” is just one continuous looping build, centered around a melancholic melody that slowly loses control of itself. So simply put, the album sets us up to expect one thing (by establishing itself with two consecutive build-up-tear-down songs); it then surprises the listener with something completely unlike that established pattern, and then proceeds to do whatever it pleases, in many different directions, with a precedent set for each. By “precedent” I mean that one cannot predict the album’s next step because it has established a precedent of repetition and experimentation—it surprises you by playing with your expectations, catering to them one moment and upending them the next, without deviating from the norms of the album itself as established in its first three songs. And when it does return to its intial song structure, it is able to further play with one’s expectations by changing other variables, those being intensity of noise/silence in the case of “You’re Not Alone.”

            All of this is to say, as an album, Black Rain is not consistent, nor is it progressively ordered with each track building on the last, nor is it symmetrically ordered, nor does it have dynamic movements that carry through songs, but its extended preoccupations with varying structural experiments, which are presented in an originally unpredictable way, engage the listener with a captivating puzzle: the linearly unpredictable aspects add to the dream-like quality of the of album’s represented world—its structure obeys the rules set in its moment, and the moment is the song, and the song obeys an internal logic. But at the same time the apparent randomness of the album gives it a realistic quality, realistic insofar as it is unpredictable, challenging, and difficult to parse in one listen. This realistic dream—this is the kind of world I love most in drone music. It reminds me of when I first listened to Tim Hecker, when his music actually flung me into the rainy streets, wandering, wandering (and before he made the most racist drone album of all time). Black Rain takes me back to those streets in a new light—or maybe in a new shade of dark.

By Isak McCune

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