With his latest album as Asva, G. Stuart Dahlquist (Sunn O))), Burning Witch, Goatsnake) leaves metal behind and sets out on his own distinct path. Recent interviews tell me that he has spent the last three years investigating Josef Albers’ color theory, losing musical weight on the Arvo Pärt diet, and studying the way sounds mutate and dazzle us when set in different contexts. As a result, his music has become less extroverted, more sonically inclusive, and equally more profound. Presences of Absences impresses with its density of sound and a fantastic vocal performance from Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver, but its simple and patient manner is what makes it exceptional.
Out of all the lessons Josef Albers taught about color, one of the easiest to understand and observe is relativity. Colors interact with each other, so that, for instance, the same shade of green can appear to be diverse when set against two differing background colors. The opposite is also possible. Set two different shades of green against the correct backgrounds and they can be made to look as one. Context, Albers observed, changes everything. G. Stuart Dahlquist has taken that lesson and applied it to his music.
Book-ending the title track to Asva’s third album are two unexpected a capella samples. The opening one is of a Creek Indian lullaby sung by a woman known only as Margaret. The other is an anonymous performance of “Shortnin’ Bread,” which was first written down by James Whitcomb Riley, but probably originated as a plantation song. Like Dahlquist’s compositions this time around, they’re composed of simple and memorable elements, but they’re also full of depth: I wonder who is singing them, why they’re singing, and most importantly for this review, what they’re doing on an album full of bellowing organs and chanted vocals. As with Albers’ theory, Margaret’s simple melody takes on a grave character when situated next to the sprawling textures of the title track, and the darting rhythms of “Shortnin’ Bread” sound weightier when they come at the end of 22 minute song full of shifting tonality and thumping drums. It’s also true that Dahlquist’s songs take on new qualities when held up in the light of these samples, and what “Shortnin’ Bread” does to change the way I see “A Bomb in that Suitcase” is a mystery I’m still pondering.
Both are simple in their own way, and simplicity is probably the most important virtue Presences of Absences has. It can be found in either the compositions or in the instrumentation, and to some degree, the latter influences the former. The usual rock ‘n’ roll drums-and-guitars combo is altered and accompanied by three different kinds of organ—Hammond and Allen in addition to the Estey—and the organs are shored up by trumpet, flugelhorn, and the voice of Toby Driver. Throughout the record, Dahlquist blends his organs and bass guitar together, using them to create heavily textured melodies that span minutes rather than seconds. At points, the organs even sound like sine waves, and their interaction assumes an electric vibe. The melodies emphasize that ambiguity, too, partly because they’re so peculiarly austere. If I had to guess, I’d say Dahlquist is playing with key signatures throughout the album; his music is never totally dissonant, but it emphasizes small frequency changes and unordinary melodies over clean harmonies. Long stretches of time pass where only a few notes are played, and overtones are often emphasized over melodic development.
Consequently, Presences of Absences is full of space, which leaves listeners with plenty of room and time to stretch out, get comfortable, and feel at home. Rather than inundate the ears and pressure the head with distortion, melody, rhythm, and noise, Asva opens up and trusts its audience to keep still and attentive enough to appreciate all the little details populating the mix, of which there are many. There are still some guitar crescendos and rhythms that descend from heavy metal, but even they transform in Dahlquist’s capable hands, and percussionist Greg Gilmore does superb work finding rhythms suitable for the proceedings.
Contributing to that aggregate of boiling waves is the voice of Toby Driver, who sounds more at home on this record than he does on certain Kayo Dot records. He has abandoned the growl and shriek of heavy metal entirely for this release, preferring the melodious ring of David Bowie’s higher registers. His falsetto reaches for religious heights and finds them on songs like “Birds” and “Presences of Absences,” but he also dishes out the same kind of worldly exotica Bowie served up on Low’s second side. When he isn’t singing lyrics, he’s vocalizing wordlessly, pushing his voice up against the organs and guitars so that they all fluctuate and warp together. Along with the masterful handling of space and instrumentation, Driver’s voice is an essential ingredient in Dahlquist’s recipe, and it may be the most obviously attractive thing on the whole record.
All of this brings me back to Josef Albers, though. Looking at his paintings, many of which are little more than concentric squares of varying color, I notice that the way I see changes according to the way he composes. I wonder if the colors I’m experiencing are the true colors on the canvas, or whether that particular shock of yellow would be so lovely in different surroundings. Albers concentrates on the basics, but he forces the viewer to find the complexity inherent in them. Asva accomplishes a similar feat with sound, turning Spartan figures into magnetic fields of patterns and crisscrossing sonorities. Inside the hum of their music time slows down a little, small details emerge, and a Creek Indian lullaby tells me something about music being made years later. Presences of Absences highlights the importance of context—as well as time and patience—and, using that as a basis, teases out the intricacy hidden in even the most elemental of music’s building blocks. The outcome is a sensational album, and easily the best thing Dahlquist has recorded with any group.