Wisconsin-via-East Bay duo Peaking Lights have been honing their sound since they formed almost randomly in 2008, booking and playing a string of shows in order to get gas money for a road trip to Texas. From those somewhat arbitrary beginnings, Indra Dunis (former drummer/vocalist for Cali no wavers Numbers) and Aaron Coyes (longtime collaborator with Rahdunes and builder of modular synthesizers) have become front-runners in a scene of artists working in texture-rich takes on the pop form. Along with artists like Sun Araw, Ducktails, and Grouper, Peaking Lights represent some of the best in noise-damaged pop of the 2010s. Their second proper full-length, 936, is by far their most fully realized work, seeing the gooey sounds of earlier releases congeal into a shimmery, meditative whole. Repetitive drum machine pulses and dub-style basslines are the backbone for most of the tracks, but recorded in such a warped, underwater fashion that the fidelity becomes an even stronger factor of hypnotic rhythm than the instruments themselves. The other elements wander around in this gelatinous landscape. Coyes' spindly guitar lines, stereo-panned undercurrents of distorted noise, laser-beam synth drones, and Echoplex delay feedback all drift in and out of focus so organically they almost seem subconscious. The vocals are understated and washy, but rather than a typical "ethereal" tag, their short, purposeful nature sounds more mantra-like, never interrupting the churning rhythms as much as being assimilated into them.
Dunis channels the hushed seclusion of Vashti Bunyan's vocal styling on "Hey Sparrow," one of the only slightly more traditionally structured tracks. The quietly devotional "Amazing and Wonderful" encapsulates the overall vibe of the album. Moody guitars and woodwind-emulating synths bounce lazily over a dark rhythm track as noisy interjections stumble in, look around, fade away. Dunis' loving vocals swim through it all, somehow the most clear-headed sound in the whole equation. The flow of the record is based entirely on patience and subtlety, so much so that the line between meditative and tedious blurs on the weaker performances. The analog gurgles and repeated "Oooh, Aaah, Aaayy" vocal coda of "Birds of Paradise [Dub Version]" seem to poke along and not really reach any definitive statement or cohesion. With only eight tracks, many of them passing the seven-minute mark, it's astonishing how well 936 keeps the plot. While the roughly nine minutes of "Marshmellow Yellow" stop safely short of being monotonous, extended jams like this could be interminable in less-skilled hands. Peaking Lights' unique approach to this drifty, synth-touched pop territory is what sets them apart from the vast majority of loft-space droners out there. The sparkling textures and crumbling lo-fi dub elements accomplish the extraordinary task of creating a head space that is simultaneously deliberate and drenched in open-ended possibility. 936 sounds like being nestled in a warm basement during the coldest winter in recent history, or the feeling of waking from a dream, somehow suspended all day.