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Very difficult but rewarding music - 75%

Noktorn, December 21st, 2007

'Sketches In The Illusory' is a hard listen; not because it's extreme or violent or complex, but because it's at times so achingly slow, unfriendly, and minimal as to be nearly unbearable. This is an album almost impossibly distant from typical conventions of melody, rhythm, or beauty. It exists as a sort of bleak, grey island all its own, where drone, doom, ambient, and post-metal intersect at a single desolate, surreal point of intrigue. It has that gasping, shuffling quality of the most extreme of sludge metal, but even without that style's conventional heaviness to form an anchor to musical standards. In short, it's not for everyone, not by a long shot.

The structure of this album is divided into four quadrants, each composed of two interlocking pieces. The first of these couplets is always a guitar/keyboard based drone/ambient track. Two of these are the most conventionally melodic of the tracks on here: 'Leaves' is a folky, somewhat eastern European clean guitar piece, while 'Tonight' seems to be something out of a French noir film, during a scene overlooking the Sein, with cigarette smoke clinging thickly to the warm night air. If there's one thing you can say about this album, it's that it's most certainly evocative, with numerous different atmospheres explored throughout its eight tracks. The unifying aspect appears to be the grey, distant, almost lifeless feel of the music, which almost seems to mock the simple, eternal song titles. There are many emotions described, but all of them are of a similarly grey nature: nostalgia, loneliness, apathy, mystery, and an overwhelmingly vague and uncertain worldview as a whole.

The second half of the couplets on this album are the more musical half due to the addition of percussion and vocals to the mix. These tracks approach more of an Isis or Neurosis post-metal style, but still have little connection with those more bombastic breeds of music. Some of the massive climaxes of that style are present, most obviously on 'Drawn' and 'Epitaph' (the album as a whole seems to be designed in a particularly symmetrical fashion, so such placement isn't very surprising), but the majority of these tracks are usurped by slow to midpaced sections of dissonant open chords or trundling, almost Khanate-derived crashes of a few sparse notes. The constant undercurrent of (most likely programmed) drums form a spindly, almost deliberately convoluted backbone, with frequent cymbal changes and slow, up-and-down tom fills. Vocals are a breathy, gasping growl which shows up only sparingly, but to an unusually great effect; it's the most openly 'brutal' element of the music, and it forms a more primal counterpoint to the generally mellow, ultra-restrained music.

There aren't any 'melodies' on this album per se; apart from a few infrequent examples, most of the riffs here are composed of strangely textured chords sliding over each other with little credence given to palm-mute-driven rhythms or any sort of repetition. The music is highly unpredictable; very little repeats, and there isn't much in the way of cyclic structure or 'riffing' as one generally knows it. Every melody that 'should' conclude in a certain way ends up meandering somewhere else in an almost deliberately dismissive fashion. Certain parts, such as on 'Tear', remind me of Meshuggah's forays into ambient, guitar-driven territory, where poking around with texture and effects is much more important than the riffing itself. Even the most comparatively 'friendly' moments on this record are a tough listen, demanding a great deal of attention and time spent soaking in the different layers of sound.

'Sketches In The Illusory' is not a fun album to listen to. It's an exercise in how far texture, ambiance, and atmosphere can be pushed in such a bleak direction. I don't find it enjoyable in a traditional sense, but I do greatly appreciate all the dedication and craftsmanship involved. From the perspective of one that's just a listener seeking pleasurable music, this isn't a very desirable release. But from the perspective of one who sees music as a very active, taxing experience, which should require effort on both listener and performer, there's little better to prove that such an idea is possible. If you are willing to tolerate music of such fragile bleakness, I highly recommend Zadan as the next artist to explore. These painstakingly crafted fragments of music display an extremely deep and involved songwriting process where the whole is most certainly more than the sum of its parts. Highly recommended for study and exploration.