Review: The Aeolian String Ensemble, “Lassithi/Elysium”

Recorded throughout the ’90s and released in 1998 by Robot Records, the first proper album from The Aeolian String Ensemble is something of a mystery. Though it is attributed primarily to the work of David Kenny, the liner notes for Lassithi/Elysium also mention names like David Tibet and Steven Stapleton. Both songs bear out comparisons to music by either one, but the Ensemble’s especially light touch and new age flourishes are entirely unique to them.

Hushed tonal breathing and intimated melody are the two primary ingredients used in “Lassithi,” the album’s opening and central song. It’s a leviathan of a recording in more ways than one. At nearly 60 minutes long it is something of a challenge from the outset, and its contents only reinforce its nearly impenetrable depths. The sole instrument used for its composition is the aeolian harp. Composed of a small wooden box, a resonator, and strings, the aeolian harp could produce harmonic overtones by virtue of the wind. Meant to be left in an open window or outside where the breeze could catch its strings, the aeolian harp was not intended for human manipulation, nor was it intended for use in any kind of traditional composition. A quick Youtube search reveals a number of outdoor installations or sound exhibits that sound a little bit like what is found on this record, only Kenny’s music reaches for far deeper tones than anything I can find on the Internet.

Some subtle plucking and electronic manipulation allow Kenny to do much more with his instrument of choice. Of course, low end rumblings and indistinct noise play a large role in both “Lassithi” and “Elysium,” but there are hints of melody throughout the record, and in some places there are phrases that my mind tells me must have come from a synthesizer. Try and imagine Tangerine Dream’s early records filtered through Andrew Chalk’s brain; every movement is an organic or wave-like one, but there’s enough harmony and echoed rhythm to keep everything from dissolving into a messy soup. “Elysium” stands in defiance of the new age classification I have given the album as Kenny employs a sequence of far darker and more sinister sounds throughout it. Here the strings are vibrated to the point of distortion; either post- production techniques or David’s method of playing the harp render the texture of the strings more obvious (think of dragging a penny across nickel-plated guitar strings). In addition, there are further keyboard-like passages and recognizable chords employed, which make the song sound more rigid and imposing than “Lassithi.” Had I not been told otherwise, I would have assumed electric guitar and some manner of synthesizer were used to record at least this song, if not both of them.

At over 70 minutes long, Lassithi/Elysium is imposing, but easier to digest than many other records of its kind. Its length implies that it is to be listened to in a way different from other music, but its content is so alluring that it demands rapt attention. However they are heard, both songs are beautiful and nuanced recordings that I place alongside favorites like Coleclough and Chalk’s Sumac or Potter and Bradley’s Behind Your Very Eyes.

Lassithi/Elysium is available from Robot Records
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com

note: I stupidly forgot to mention that the artwork for this album is by Christoph Heemann, of Mirror and H.N.A.S. fame.

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