The last decade of electronic music has seen many artists tackling the cultural and social overload that our digital age has ushered in. The responses take all kinds of forms, from the ultra-processed glitch sounds that lead from Autechre to MESH to the lofi jams that seek to strip things down, recapturing the raw grit of a simpler musical age. However artists respond to contemporary culture, there is an intellectual, masculine slant that runs through these releases. They are fundamentally guarded, obscuring emotional expression behind washes of distortion and complex arrangements.
This isn’t a bad thing. It actually seems an appropriate reaction to the cultural brainfreeze of our times, where identity is fluid and memory unreliable. But it does make the recent resurgence of balearic, ambient and new age music particularly striking. More than nakedly beautiful or ‘musical’, these genres are unashamedly sincere, a crucial trait that can get easily get lost between scene posturing and academic experimentation.
The career of Luke Wyatt, aka Torn Hawk, mirrors this progression. He made his name with experimental music and video, tossing artefacts of high and low culture into a boiling pit, offering thrilling and at times unsettling work where definition and references are lost. The difference with Wyatt is that he’s never been afraid to inject feelings into his music. Even on his muddiest output for L.I.E.S, emotional passages rise boldly from the mulch, injecting the scarred sonics with humanity.
Even by Wyatt’s standard, this new album is an about turn. Union and Return shrugs off the low fidelity haze of his past work, revelling in lush orchestral arrangements and a message of clear-eyed positivity. Musically it’s hard to nail down, recalling post-rock as often as it does new age or minimalist classical compositions.
At first it’s a little hard to take in. Wyatt’s delicate guitar figures dance through fields of soaring strings and bombastic brass. He’s wearing his heart well beyond his sleeve. It almost sounds too optimistic, too guileless to be sincere. A quick glance at his current website shows a parody of a motivational speaker, quotes imploring the reader to new heights of self-actualisation. Is this all some kind of dark satire?
The emotional directness of this album runs from the first note to the last. Whereas in Wyatt’s previous work the unabashedly rousing melodies of Friends & Family or Feeling Is Law might have been shrouded in haze or grounded by grimy rhythms, here they are allowed to fly free. The throbbing bass that opens final track To Die Swimming In The Sea is quickly joined by a pretty piano melody and stirring brass. Almost all of the tracks are supplemented by synthesised choirs, lifting spirits, hearts and hopes.
Even when a darkness creeps in there is nothing to obscure the affect. To Miss The Mark is a particularly elegant miniature, a keening piano swamped in sustain, a final shriek of strings echoing the curdling horror of failure. The album’s tensest composition, With My Back To The Tower, offers menacing guitar figures and a hammering rhythm, the drums jittering claustrophobically. Yet even here there is a confident resolution – brass blooms to signal an epic battle, the piano flutters, chopped choral keys reach upwards, outwards into a brilliant blue sky.
After spending time with this album, it’s hard to hear it as a satire. It’s too keenly felt, too lush and complex to come from a cynical mind. Union and Return extends its hands, palms up, offering motivation, connection and relief. The only question is whether you will accept its gift.