Sometimes, context is everything. There’s a moment in the film 28 Days Later when Brian Eno’s ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ is played amidst the carnage, making the track even more gorgeous and poignant than it already was as part of Eno’s Apollo album. It pulls you out of the film’s bloody hysteria, giving a brief moment of serene respite. Bearing context in mind, one of the first listens I gave to the eponymous debut album from A Winged Victory for the Sullen was with footage from the recent riots in England playing silently on the TV in the background. While buildings burned and shops were looted, the instrumental pieces built, soared and drifted away again, heightening the record’s orchestral beauty. Repeated plays – sans rioting – only serve to confirm that A Winged Victory for the Sullen is a special record.
The band is the work of Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie and composer Dustin O’Halloran (Marie Antoinette) but also includes vital contributions from cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and some violin work from the wonderful Peter Broderick. Essentially it’s an album drawing from ambient, classical and post-rock and some of it was recorded in a church space in Berlin. If that isn’t enough to get you imagining the epic sadness contained within, the band was formed partly as a tribute to the late Mark Linkous, with Wiltzie being a former contributor to Sparklehorse.
String-laden yet understated, opening track ‘We Played Some Open Chords’ is indeed a sullen start to proceedings, with heavy piano chords weighing down the stirring string quartet. The memory of Linkous is commemorated in the two-part ‘Requiem for the Static King’ which pairs Gudnadottir’s sad cello against Broderick’s hopeful violin. The first part acts as an introduction to part two, in which the strings are bolstered in number and swell in a chest-heaving emotional pattern around Wiltzie’s ambient drones before O’Halloran’s teardrop piano notes add a final beautiful touch. If Mark Linkous receives no other musical tribute than these two pieces, then it’s more than enough.
‘Minuet for a Cheap Piano’ is just that, a short and stately waltz before the heartbreaking ‘Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears’ heralds a return for the strings – Gudnadottir and Broderick’s interplay is simply stunning throughout – but it’s what’s going on underneath that’s really interesting. Wiltzie’s search for the perfect ambient drone, as witnessed by his work in Stars of the Lid, may be over thanks to his work with AWVFTS. With O’Halloran’s compositions, Wiltzie’s soundscapes (horns, synthetic sounds and prepared guitar pieces) have found their perfect partner as all the distinct parts come together to form a magnificent whole.
A track such as ‘A Symphony Pathetique’ relies on the spaces between the notes of the strings and piano, and it recalls variously the work of Brian Eno, Christian Fennesz and Philip Glass. Wiltzie fills the spaces with sampled choral voices, looped string parts and distant, gently teased guitar. There are moments when there’s nothing but one or two notes being played and it feels like the music is going to fade away to nothing, escaping from this world into another place.
Closing track ‘All Farewells Are Sudden’ belies its title (although most likely another nod to Mark Linkous’ death) by being a slow and drawn-out end, befitting of what’s come before. O’Halloran takes centre stage here, his solid grand piano echoing across the piece, replicating the cavernous sound of the Grunewald Church in Berlin, where some of the album was recorded.
AWVFTS is so much more than a side-project; it’s the culmination of Adam Wiltzie’s search for the right sound, and a platform away from film composition for Dustin O’Halloran to showcase his grand and ambitious orchestral pieces. It’s a record of staggering beauty and unlikely to be matched in terms of depth of emotion by any other instrumental record in 2011.