Keeping up with Andrew Chalk’s discography has always been an amusingly challenging endeavor, but the challenge has shifted from pouncing on limited edition physical releases to vigilantly ensuring that he does not quietly surface with a substantial new opus of some kind without my notice. The most recent substantial new opus is this one on Colin Potter’s ICR label, which is billed as Chalk’s “first new solo album in five years.” It certainly feels like a major statement to me, though the meaning of terms like “new” and “album” can be quite blurry and elusive given Chalk’s singularly minimalist approach to providing album details. In any case, The End Times was (perhaps prophetically) recorded earlier this year and marks a rare CD release after Chalk’s recent run of cassettes. Beyond that, further details are quite slim. That is just fine by me, as the only thing that actually matters is that Andrew Chalk is still making incredibly beautiful and distinctive music, as The End Times is a characteristically sublime and immersive dreamscape of tender melodies, elegantly shifting moods, and vividly detailed textures.
The opening “House of the Holy” provides an appropriately representative introduction to the album’s overall aesthetic, as a vaporous melody of blurred, lingering notes unfolds over a gently gurgling pulse. As the album unfolds, a few subtle new details emerge that set The End Times apart from some of Chalk’s other recent work, but the most prominent features throughout are the quivering, liquid-like character of the notes and the ephemeral brevity of the pieces. Rather than evolving and expanding, these 13 pieces instead feel like a series of enigmatic mirages that offer a fleeting and flickering glimpse of heaven before dissolving back into nothingness. Given all the gentle, blurred sounds and the tone of meditative reverie, it is deceptively easy to mistake The End Times for ambient music, yet it reveals itself to be considerably more than that for those willing to fully immerse themselves in Chalk’s slow-motion fantasia of beautiful details and small yet significant events. I view it as somewhat akin to looking through a rain-streaked window–it is easy to gaze through the glass and simply think “today is a wet and overcast day,” but it is also possible to appreciate how the individual droplets quiver and roll down the glass or how the streaks of water subtly bend and warp the appearance of the outside world. Albums like this are the reason why the genre term “lowercase” needed to exist, as Chalk’s compositions are incredibly rich, but the size of the reward is directly proportional to how closely one listens.
While Chalk’s vision admittedly tends to focus on the metaphorical trees, he does not entirely forget the metaphorical forest, so there are some more overt pleasures to be found as well. The most immediately gratifying is “Midsummar,” which feels like a bittersweetly melodic piano miniature transformed into quavering, viscous droplets of bliss, but it also features a bit of a gently hallucinatory Ghost Box/library music feel. Elsewhere, the shimmering, sad beauty of “The End Times” steals the show as the beating heart of the album, while “War Horns” uses a simple, ghostly melody as the canvas for a micro-scale fireworks display of Pole-esque hisses, clicks, and pops. “At Sunset” is yet another quiet stunner, as Chalk transforms a slow parade of frayed, swelling tones into something that feels like time lapse footage of the psychotropic bloom of an otherworldly flower. More than any other piece on the album, “At Sunset” illustrates the singular magic of a great Andrew Chalk piece, as he is without peer at sculpting compositions until nothing remains but a fleeting and fragile moment of simple poignant beauty.