Terminal velocity: the velocity at which a falling body moves through a medium, as air, when the force of resistance of the medium is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to the force of gravity.
Taking to the air and flying seem to be one of humankind’s longest running obsessions. As far back as the Greeks we were dreaming of taking to the skies. Of course, the tale of poor Icarus served to warn us off these lofty ambitions. And now, perhaps, it’s the turn of Jon Mueller and James Plotkin to help us explore one of our inherent obsessions.
The album was recorded in rural Wisconsin and the sprawling openness of that state lends an ambient backdrop to the entire record. There’s also a sense of constraint and concentration to this work. Never is the music allowed to escape the confines imposed on it by the duo. A perfect example is ‘Hypnagogia’, where the subtle underlying drone hums at the same resonance for seven minutes whilst Mueller’s drum kit is a continuous rattle punctured by a perfectly placed bass drum kick that echoes outwards… The texture of the music on the first half of the record gives you a tactile sense of flying, gliding and falling. There’s a sense of weightlessness to it which almost belies the tight confines that Mueller and Plotkin are exploring.
It’s as if the forces of nature and physics no longer apply to you and you’re floating in a no-man’s land between the earth and sky. The idea of reaching terminal velocity sounds fraught with effort, noise, danger and waves of adrenaline, but this work of music would suggest that once you’ve attained this velocity you’ve actually reached a state of peace and tranquillity. You’ve transcended the idea of falling; it’s something you no longer have to think about as, in your mind, you’re now, for all intents and purposes, stationary.
It’s only on the second half of this album that this delicate balancing act starts to fall apart. The tipping point comes with ‘Anthypnic’. A slow rumble of noise creeps into life, not yet finding form, but building and rolling into earshot. It’s an experience akin to standing in a field as the wind picks up, the air thickens with moisture, and you catch sight of a devastating weather system about to break. Mueller’s tight control on the underlying percussion gives way to Plotkin’s growing harmonic growl, continually building, leaving you catching your breath. But, like any epic storm, it blows itself out. You’re left relieved and able to embrace the resulting quiet. However, it’s shattered your confidence in this escape and the realisation dawns that this isn’t as easy or as straightforward as you might have initially believed.
The album continues with ‘Subvocal’. It falsely lulls you into thinking the storm has passed. You regain your peace and composure, but sounds of creeping static and buzzing feedback crackle into life, and you realise that you’re in the in the eye of the storm. Sheering beams of distorted electronics screech into life, driven by a cyclical field of crisp feedback, fracturing the feeling of tranquillity with a scary finality. ‘Microsleep’ is the end of the journey. After the shattering noise that’s disrupted this delicate balance of physics, the pull of gravity regains control, pulling you back towards the ground. The music reflects this change in conditions – the sound of wind through your hair, the rumbling drums a reminder that you’re not in your natural environment and you need to be brought back to earth. The tailing electronic coda is a perfect end – not the crash and bang of death or the permanent end of this experience, but a controlled and gently optimistic twist of music that suggests, with a wry smile, that you can do this again, just be prepared for it to be a rough ride at times.