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Review: Crossworlds by Joshua Van Tassel

23 September 2018

Canadian composer and producer Joshua Van Tassel creates a detailed and colourful sonic drama in his fourth solo release ‘Crossworlds.’ It boldly stands alone but is also part of a greater whole, accompanied by a novella penned by Van Tassel in collaboration with Jordan Crute, with illustrations by Geordan Moore. This concept album, told in nine chapters and built on a richly orchestrated electro-acoustic blend tells the tale of an old woman who is left to defend her small island from a force not of this world. This maritime story with a science fiction twist combines submarine field recordings, orchestral strings and brand new instruments created at the National Music Centre in Calgary.  


Beginning with ‘Rebirth’ we are greeted with a low, groaning drone and a shimmering twinkle in the treble leaving us transfixed in a sense of wonderment, wide-eyed with this song’s sweeping sense of vastness. Xylophone layered with glassy synths chime out an alien melody, building with doubled strings as the grandeur swells. This brightness, awash with sampled textures taken  from underwater in Newfoundland then slowly disintegrates, yielding to something dark and menacing, leaving a sense of uneasiness. 


We are introduced to the protagonist in the following track, ‘The Old Woman,’ which features acoustic guitar and a jaunty bass line, which lies beneath a lamenting synth melody. Soft drums build with orchestral strings, harmonisation and countermelody thickening as the tapestry expands. Imagining all the elements of the orchestration as different nuanced facets of this character, there is a sense of playfulness spiked with a hint of melancholy, and a lingering feeling that this person is someone familiar.


‘The Infirmary’ begins with a distant, far-off piano figure dancing in a thick, hazy mirage of synth as the atmosphere develops, and then xylophone rings out brightly above with a spacey reverberation. The motif builds and then this slow dream state is spliced with a contrasting sound world as programmed drums slice in: a dramatic recapitulation with a hint of indie rock’n’roll. As the crescendo builds to dizzying heights, the sound is scintillating, with oscillating harmonies brilliantly shining, soaring up to a frenzied dissolution of jagged white noise, before being sucked into silent oblivion.


As these tracks follow on one after the other with a sense of linear flow, we next arrive at ‘Legacy’ in which xylophone pensively rings out its melody over a substrate of electronic sound. A chordal piano accompaniment joins in with a synth that is almost camouflaged as an accordion amongst thel strings that surround. The dramaturgic feel to this music gleams like distinct rays of theatre spotlights, shining through the dust and onto an empty stage. Snare drum rolls build as the strings become denser in a brief climax, before a moment of suspense is broken by the quiet whispering of this wistful tune once more.


Seductive and beguiling, ‘Passenger’ swoons and sways in a gritty, unsettling sonic texture, and sounds almost as if an orchestra has crashed an underground party in some dark warehouse. This is a sound world inhabited by alien whirs, with slipping, sliding strings that swerve around a distant, thudding kick drum, creating a slowly materialising visceral sensation and gritty pulsating rhythm. Exploding into a gravelly, meteoric dream beat, this track kicks into overdrive over buzzing, brassy sustained bass, then drops away to dewy piano and a glint of sound samples. 


In ‘A Turning Tide,’ wildly thrashing tentacles of sound and a howling melody give way to waves of fragmented repetition. Atop a rapidly pulsating texture, piano and xylophone double a melody with sparse acoustic guitar strumming. As epic drums build beneath, the bleeping synth texture develops a distorted, almost psychedelic tinge. While the beat accumulates and grows with urgency to a crescendo of heightened dynamics and texture, the cyclical sense of development spirals in tighter and tighter, before finally the sound flickers and dies away.  


Following on with ‘Sacrificed,’ the pace drops right back, with slowly falling synth pulses, eventually joined by a lonely piano melody with growing, flittering, fluctuating synth and hints of strings. As the sound intensifies with heavily slammed percussion, emphatic and insistent, the string melody thickens and the sound radiates with incandescent brilliance. Suddenly, the mood changes to something far more menacing, with an aggressive, sinister surge of sound that roars four times with incredible intensity, like the last dying breaths of an angered behemoth. 

With an uneasy piano melody swaying between semitones, ‘Failure’ is angular and becomes manic as it progresses, with queasy strings that smear around in wide vibrato. Then suddenly, an interjection of maddening pizzicato and plucky synth texture takes over, before being joined by drums that build into a percussion breakdown. The ensemble slowly joins in reaching for a yet higher climax, before abruptly dropping off. 


‘The Ferry’ is the final chapter of this sonic narrative journey, ushered in with rolling snare drum and distorted piano and is like looking through frosted glass. A lyrical violin melody navigates its way through the fog, and is then bolstered with a piano doubling. Slow trills of wavering strings come in and out, and a painterly blur of choir, strings and synth build a warm glow that envelopes the growing arrangement. Broken piano chords in rising arpeggios reach upwards, concluding on a mysterious harmony that leads off into the distance, disappearing into the faint whirs of synth. 


There is immediate dimensionality to the way this album unfolds, expertly arranged with a theatrical sensibility that makes you feel completely enveloped. With a fantastical aura seeping into the orchestration, these songs feel like music theatre without words, replete with developing motifs and a strong sense of character. We are drawn into a story that builds around us like a moment of clarity and deep mindfulness, as these songs deftly morph and blend between a breadth of sounds that are disparate but unified.

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