This latest release from this eternally innovative Stockholm-based composer is a durational tour de force that first began to take shape in empty Berlin concert halls in the early months of the pandemic. While I note with grim humor that the pandemic has itself become an endlessly shifting durational tour de force, Malone’s primary inspiration came instead from the ambient sense of unreality and distorted time that became pervasive as the fabric of normal daily life quickly unraveled. Like many other artists, Malone suddenly found herself with plenty of free time during that period of dread, isolation, and uncertainty, yet she was fortunate enough to get an invitation to record new music at Berlin’s Funkhaus and MONOM and even luckier still to have some extremely talented friends around with newly open schedules themselves. In short, the stars were in perfect alignment for one hell of an avant-drone dream team to form, as Malone (armed with 72 sine wave oscillators) tapped in like-minded souls Stephen O’Malley and Lucy Railton and the expected slow-burning dark sorcery ensued. Does Spring Hide Its Joy feels like an inspired twist on the longform drone majesty of artists like Éliane Radigue, as Malone employed just intonation to layer complex and otherworldly harmonies while her collaborators gamely helped ensure that the crescendos were visceral, gnarled and snarling enough to leave a deep impression.
I have no doubt at all that Kali Malone brought her usual compositional rigor to this “study in harmonics and non-linear composition with a heightened focus on just intonation and beating interference patterns,” but Does Spring Hide Its Joy is more open-ended than her usual fare and leaves some welcome room for spontaneity and improvisation. Malone envisioned the piece as a puzzle of sorts that is assembled from five-minute blocks approximating a ladder that the musicians can choose to ascend or descend. The total number of blocks is fluid as well. For example, the album versions of the piece are an hour long while the live version can sometimes stretch to 90 minutes (note: the CD includes three performances of the piece while the LP includes only two). On top of that inventive structure, Malone deliberately wrote the piece with her collaborators’ styles and techniques in mind, envisioning the composition as a “framework for subjective interpretation and non-hierarchical movement.” In practical terms, that means that this piece is essentially a drone fantasia of bowed strings, smoldering distortion, and shifting harmonies that occasionally blossoms into something more fiery and transcendent. This being a Kali Malone composition, however, the organically evolving harmonies and oscillations are invariably absorbing, sophisticated, and distinctive regardless of the shape the piece takes. Notably, this album is also a bit more earthy, psychotropic and texturally varied than previous Malone opuses. It feels akin to a ghostly ballet or hallucinatory tendrils of smoke, as the sustained tones of the three players languorously intertwine and dissipate in a dreamlike haze of lingering feedback, overtones, and harmonics.
Given the inherently fluidity of that compositional approach, the album’s two or three pieces are essentially variations upon the same theme and the differences between the individual discs or LPs are largely irrelevant. They each unfold differently, of course, but they are essentially the same elements combining at different times (somewhat akin to out-of-phase tape loops). That said, there is an unconventional arc of sorts, as the drones tend to boil over into churning and howling intensity with increased frequency as each part creeps into its second and third movements (though those delineations would be hard to notice without a numbered track list as a reference). That said, Does Spring Hide Its Joy feels more akin to watching slow-motion footage of a storm forming at sea than it does a planned composition, as terms like “beginning” or “end” lose all meaning: elemental forces simply gather and dissipate at their own pace and occasionally there are metaphorical flashes of lightning or masses of dark clouds. That fundamentally unpredictability makes for an impressively absorbing listening experience, as each new harmonic development could potentially be the early stages of a howling tempest.
Obviously, experiencing the slow-motion massing of Malone’s otherworldly harmonic clouds right from the beginning is the probably the best way to appreciate the eerie beauty of this album, but Spring is also the sort of piece in which I could drop into its shifting currents at nearly any point and find myself quickly entranced in medias res. That unusual feature did not elude Malone, unsurprisingly, as there is also an installation version of the piece that is coupled with video work from Nika Milano. I am sure I would absolutely love that, as it is doubly immersive to have a cool visual accompaniment while I dissolve into oceanic harmonic bliss, yet Spring is a mesmerizing experience as a stand-alone album too. As was the case with previous Malone classics like The Sacrificial Code, what I get out of this album depends largely upon what I put in: deep listening brings deep rewards. My gut feeling is that Spring is destined to topple that previous masterpiece as my personal favorite Malone album, as it is every bit as sophisticated as its predecessor yet has more bite and spontaneity. Then again, maybe I will conclude that I prefer the more focused and minimal pleasures of Malone by herself at a pipe organ. They both have their place, certainly (that place being “heavy rotation”). Regardless of where Spring ultimately lands in my personal Kali Malone canon, I have no hesitation at all about proclaiming this to be yet another brilliant and fascinating statement from an artist on quite an impressive hot steak.