Lawrence English

Cruel Optimism

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Australian Lawrence English is one of the leading exponents of a style that has come to be known as "power ambient." Combining the prolonged, soothing tones of ambient and drone music with intense volume and the crushing denseness and weight of noise or doom metal, his music, at once beautiful and terrible, is like an iron fist in a velvet glove. While his last album, 2014's Wilderness of Mirrors, began relatively delicately and built up only gradually to towering sonic peaks, this one plunges the listener right from the start into a raging maelstrom of sound. It's not noise -- it's definitely music, as there are subtle melodies and harmonies involved -- but it's noisy. This time out, it's a more collaborative effort than ever before. Room40 regulars Chris Abrahams and Norman Westberg contribute, as do Swans guitarist Thor Harris, avant-jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, and electroacoustic guru Werner Dafeldecker -- but no instruments are distinguishable -- their tones are gathered up and mashed together by English into his by-now-trademark thunderhead of sound. Listened to at loud enough volumes, it's overpowering, disorienting, and as malevolent as any black metal; yet the dense clusters of harmonic overtones give it a haunting beauty akin to the choral music of Eric Whitacre or Morten Lauridsen. At times, as with the noisy, distorted thrumming on "Object of Protection," it reminds one of those albums by Sunn O))) recorded in a northern European cathedral. English is a writer and liberal political activist who treats his position of privilege as one of responsibility, and whose 2010s recordings are wordless protest albums against atrocities committed against the powerless. He is a noted critic of the use of sonic weapons on civilians, a practice referenced here in the track title "Exquisite Human Microphone" -- the irony being that his music would itself make a potent sonic weapon. With this album, English has created something awe-inspiring: strange, elemental, and profound. Very little music so masterfully evokes the towering, savage beauty of the natural world, and the insignificance of man in the face of its enormity and power.

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