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Bass Communion - Cenotaph CD (album) cover

CENOTAPH

Bass Communion

 

Progressive Electronic

2.96 | 18 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

blueavenger
4 stars Bass Communion's virtues don't need to be extolled ad-infinitum by me here. People reading this review will already know that it is part of Steven Wilson's immense pantheon of work and that it is a departure from his other projects by way of its focus on ambient, electronic minimalism.

The key questions here about Cenotaph - Bass Communion's 11th studio album - are; is it any good; how does it stand up to the other Bass Communion albums and is it worthy of entry in the hallowed archives of great progressive music? Well there is a favorable answer to all three queries in my opinion and the founding argument for this stance can only relate to one element: the music.

Citadel (5/5) starts things off with the obligatory BC retro-crackle and then kicks into menacing brass that breathes in and out of the track like an outtake from the Alien / Outland- era sci-fi movies from the late 1970's and early 80's. This is soon accompanied by a blend of eerie ghost-movie strings, staccato electronic effects and an otherworldly choir of distant voices. The general essence is of a slowly descending swell towards something more sinister or visceral as the various elements oscillate in volume and presence. Sure enough, the tension moves to the next level five and a half minutes in as a regular heart- beat style pulse comes to the fore, as if perfect accompaniment to the intimated visual cues of a advancing into the darkest of chasms after a steady descent. In truth, not much else happens thereafter, but the music is pace and theme of the track remains relentless and is expertly mixed. Quieter moments emerge, strings swell and the brass exhales, while an odd -and perhaps slightly out of place ' stringed instrument (perhaps a Koto) is plucked in the background. The orchestra of dread, inevitably, gives way gradually towards the end as chords become notes and the string bass is sustained while the beat slowly sinks beneath the lingering chorus of the damned.

Citadel, for some, might be construed as a little tedious, but anyone that wants a truly dark ambient backdrop to their lives can surely not want for anything more and this sits nicely alongside tracks like Sleep, Vajrayana and Dwarf Gallery (and even No Man's Born Simple) at the gloomy end of SW's repertoire ' representative of the sequel to Ghosts on Magnetic Tape, as Steven Wilson had suggested this could be viewed as.

Colourofmoney91 referenced Andy Stott in his review of this album and it was probably the 2nd track ' Carrion (3/5) ' that he/she was thinking about. At 21:24, Carrion is the longest track on the album by a couple of minutes and, whereas Citadel was a horror-movie soundtrack of a piece, with a considered intro, varying instruments and a distinctive essence, track 2 forgets the script and doesn't really deliver. Compared to the five-minute intro of the preceding track, Carrion gives us barely 30 seconds of industrial rumblings before the beat kicks in. Straight away, the electronic pulse of the track is quicker (109 bpm, versus 100), but less distinguishable from more conventional ambient dance (the aforementioned Mr. Stott). The accompaniment is also not as rich as is rather Spartan throughout with a groaning synthesizer in the background and various sci-fi samples alongside the primary instrument of distorted xylophone (or something similar) which itself, only offers 2 or 3 notes every 20-30 seconds. The brass motif from Citadel makes a welcome appearance every so often, as do some occasional guitar licks. Aside from that, Carrion is rather unremarkable and, whilst still a worthy piece of moody, minimalist trance, does not sustain the momentum of the opening track: rather than continue in our journey through the netherworld, we seem to have ended up back above ground, wandering through a misty woodland. If anything, this is the greatest departure from any Bass Communion music that has come before it, but it does at least serve to transit less contrastingly with track 3 than Citadel might have done.

Cenotaph (5/5) is possible both the title track and the center-piece of the album and also marks the turning point between darkness and light. Gone are the low-register brass rumblings, ghostly choirs and tense beats; what we are left with is a shimmering piece of classic Bass Communion electronica. It's almost as if this track ' being the only one without a 'pulse' ' symbolizes death or perhaps, a glance into what might be beyond that. Bearing some similarities to the untitled 20-minute coda to Queen's 1995 Made in Heaven album, (itself a celebration of somebody passing beyond), Cenotaph comes across like the logical evolution of the beautiful Litany EP and - echoing some of the tone and character of Drugged - Cenotaph raises Bass Communion's music to another level of sonic wonder. The crackle is front and centre, as always, but offers more halcyon warmth than usual. The opening tone rings of an old war-time radio transmission and gradually allows descending strings to creep in, as if to serve as a transition (or an ascent, if you will) from the depths traveled previously. An angelic, synthetic choir emerges ' the polar opposite to Citadel's hellish wail ' and merges cleverly with the strings to make harmonious chords as they make their way down the scale. It's such a good effect that it is repeated a couple of times for good measure. Heavenly synth notes register thereafter, as if glints of sunshine through clouds. Here, the listener is truly lifted to another plane of existence, bathed in a glorious golden light, and as the glow fades, we segue effortlessly into the album closer.

Conflux (4/5) serves to maintain the spirit of the album's centerpiece and could fancifully be interpreted as a return descent to the surface of our mortal world, post enlightenment or rebirth (possibly even in angelic form). Musically, Conflux could comfortably be summarized as 'Cenotaph with beats' and, whilst not as compelling as the two standout tracks on the album, it satisfies its brief of ending the record in a suitable fashion. Here, the 109 beat of Carrion returns ' echoing the reoccurring leitmotif of Pete Namlook's Outland IV - this time from the very first bar, accompanied by the swelling and surging motifs featured in Cenotaph. The groaning brass, sawing strings, electronic dabbles and futuristic samples all return and share equal staging as the track drones and pulsates incessantly and happily enough for nearly eighteen minutes ' which, at almost 4 minutes shorter than Carrion, shows better editorial judgement.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Steven Wilson wrote only 2 x tracks here, but made an albums-worth of content by placing a trance remix of each immediately following in the running order, such is the similarity between both the structure of Carrion and Conflux and also how they are symbiotically linked to the track that precedes them.

It's only in this facet where Bass Communion's eleventh studio album lets itself down. Musically, had Carrion been a stronger, tighter track with a little more variance (perhaps with 2 distinct halves like 16 Second Swarm or some changes in pace and tone like the aforementioned Vajrayana) and Conflux offered a greater distinction to Cenotaph, then there would have been few complaints and we could easily have been lauding a 5-star masterpiece in electronic wizardry.

As it is, this is probably still Bass Communion's best album, but there remains ample promise for even better to come should the supremely spread-thin Mr Wilson be able to devote a reasonable chunk of his precious time to a 12th record and aim for the focused, thematic brilliance of this and Ghosts on Magnetic tape, rather than the sprawling, experimental concepts of Loss and the ill-conceived Pacific Codex.

In terms of where Cenotaph stands in the great annals of Progressive music is another matter. What would true Prog-devotees find on this album to savor? Purists would argue that four tracks of 20 minute length is at least a good starting point, but that there isn't the range, depth and variety to compare with, say, Tangerine Dream: the yardstick of Progressive Electronica.

To summarize, I would probably have to say that people looking for a truly progressive experience ' like Phaedra for example ' might be better off elsewhere. For those of you looking to immerse the mind in a dark, absorbing, organic torrent of aural inspiration, then there can't be much out there more appropriate for you than Bass Communion's Cenotaph.

blueavenger | 4/5 |

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