Straight off the bat, this release by the Cray Twins is beautiful, dark, powerful, and atmospheric. Unsurprising, considering that, according to the press release, this album was created nearly entirely from equalised, distorted, enhanced and/or otherwise sonically tweaked field recordings, with subtle accompaniment from a small ensemble of folks playing along on things like ‘prepared saxophone’, ‘processed clarinet’, ‘tone generators’, and ‘phonography’. It’s very minimal, very evocative, and very, very nice.
Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with a combination of dark-ambient drones and field-recording textures—the two go together like blast-beats and down-tuned guitars, really—and the Cray Twins do everything right on this release. There’s a great sense of restraint here, with everything given the room it requires for maximum evocation, and there’s never too much going on at once. It’s full when it needs to be full, but it’s empty when that’s what it needs; when focus is required to notice the textures in their fullest detail; when the ear zooms in like some kind of aural microscope to properly sense the small changes in tone or grain that the Cray Twins want us to appreciate. Like they say in the press release, ‘we make instruments out of the landscape’. But it’s not like this is all tiny sounds and minimal ‘sound art’ stuff: The Cray Twins also know when to crush us beneath the weight of distortion.
One of my favourite things ever is taking a field recording and distorting the living fuck out of it, so it’s no wonder I like this release so much: The Cray Twins do this very same thing (although I doubt they’re doing something so crude as just shoving it through a Boss Heavy Metal 2 guitar pedal like I do). The process of recording nature and pulverising it creates, for me, a beautifully warm experience, with this wonderful cosy distortion fluffing up the sound until it’s all thick and woolly, something the listener can sink into, plush and deep. All these qualities apply to the Cray Twins’ distortionary techniques. Small things are massively amplified, loud things are turned to peaty loam, and the whole experience is just extremely pleasing, especially as the Cray Twins accompany their gross distortions with lovely layers of soothing synth. A great example is the second piece on the album, ‘Duao I’, which, although ostensibly about a terrifyingly destructive 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile, to me felt instead languid and comforting rather than harrowing—like sinking into a bubble bath made of mud, except easier to clean.
Unlike a lot of dark ambient/experimental soundscape artists, these tracks are relatively short, very manageable, mostly about four-and-a-half minutes long, with the longest piece being just shy of ten. Restraint is not something that the dark ambient field is really known for, and it was great to hear just how much could be achieved, dark-ambient-evocation-wise, in pieces shorter than ‘Hotel California’ (something a lot of dark ambient producers could learn from, to be honest, myself included). Note to self: not every blackened voidscape needs to go for fifteen minutes to be effective.
For me, the only negative moments on this whole album are, interestingly enough, the moments when there are obvious humans visible. ‘Song from a Black House’ begins with a folky, almost Simon and Garfunkel-esque refrain, gradually becoming stranger and stranger (added harmonies appear, more and more detuned), which, although it works in isolation, feels strange on an album that is nearly entirely otherwise dedicated to nothing but tones and textures. The spoken word / documentary section of ‘Duao 2’ felt like I was being pulled right out of my warm mud bubble bath (to continue the metaphor from before) to answer the phone or open the front door. Although I completely understand the point of it—to give the piece a certain vérité, to remind us that this is not just a symbolic piece representing a vague ‘anything’ but a piece reflecting a very true and very unsettling specific natural disaster—it still turned an immersive experience into a documentary piece, immediately refocusing the experience on human words rather than unlabelled sounds. I understood it, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. Similarly, the tracks ‘Seafar’ and ‘A Boy’ began with spoken word stuff which, again, had the same kind of effect: All of my focus was suddenly on the words, and the minimalism that the music so carefully created was abruptly relegated to the background.
The tracks ‘Seafar’ and ‘A Boy’ did, however, sound at least a little aquatic, with creaks and waves and ripples of sound. Overall, although the album is called The Pier, oddly enough, I otherwise never really felt much of a maritime vibe from this release (even ‘The Harbour’ didn’t feel particularly wet to my ears). It felt much more sombre, foggy, and valley-shaped to me, like the enveloping mist that can obscure the view and make one feel blind. Long tones suggested to me the still grandness of mountains rather than the constant splash and fizz of a dock or ocean. To me, many of these pieces evoked not constant motion, but granite epochs of inactivity. Still, whether or not it evoked exactly what they aimed to evoke is beside the point. It all sounded great, and to me, The Pier ticked off all the required boxes for a highly successful dark ambient / experimental art-sound release without sounding too derivative or run-of-the-mill.
Scrapes, spray, rubble, and fog: The Cray Twins are definitely onto something great. Less human voices and more distortions, and I’ll be a devoted fan for sure.