Lawrence English's latest solo album is his deepest and most rewarding yet, drowning eerie anime-inspired pads in cyberpunqued TV static and fogged grey noise. Patient, personal and incredibly moving >> RIYL Akira Yamaoka's "Silent Hill" OST, Thomas Köner, Deathprod.
If Room 40 boss English can be credited with at least partially prompting the global interest in "power ambient" - the high-dynamism sound that pairs heavy metal theatrics with synthesized drone textures - it makes sense that on his most self-scrutinizing album to date, he's taken a step back. To "Approach" his current reality, English has scrutinized his distant past, a period he barely speaks about, when he was locked into a grueling performance of hegemonic masculinity at an all boys school in Australia. With this in mind, his most widely-acclaimed "power ambient" tomes make more sense; 2014's "Wilderness of Mirrors" and 2017's "Cruel Optimism" were barbed commentaries on the global spiral into fascism, and English's way of reflecting was via deafening performative noise. On the former, he took the raw material left by stentorian staples Earth, MBV and Swans and fashioned it into a moving lament, and with the latter he considered power in all its forms as a "protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures."
If those albums revealed English's ability to mimic and deconstruct power - and therefore hegemonic masculinity - using tangentially ambient methodology, "Approach" allows us to visualize the confusion, fear and tenderness that lurks beneath the surface. To aid his self-investigation, English refers to two of his most formative cultural interface points: Yoshihisa Tagami's sci-fi manga "Grey" that English read when he was just 13, and William Gibson's cyberpunk classic "Neuromancer". Gibson's book begins with the line, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel," and English subtly portrays this by drowning his tracks in static. While his previous albums operated in a relatively similar mode, their ruthless volume and tidal intensity now becomes almost numb: the armor has been stripped away, revealing raw nerves underneath. "Grey" serves as the album's narrative reference, and English assembles "Approach" to mirror the serial's storyline and themes, using the terse titular lead as a de-facto stand-in for his own young self.
The album plays then as a lament to a conflicted and confused past, as well as an homage to the bright beacons of hope who helped guide the young artist through his most difficult times. Beneath the static, resonant pads are dulled into near silence, buzzing occasionally with mystery, hope or anguish. English's dead channel fuzz is the album's connecting tissue, but harmonic elements are allowed to ring through occasionally, like foghorns in the night. These faint mood stabilizers guide us through the most disturbing moments, inviting comparison to Akira Yamaoka's brilliant "Silent Hill" soundtracks or Thomas Köner's exceptional early run of "dark ambient" tomes. Here, English has reduced his power to broken simmer that's disrupted by beauty and alluring unease - it's an original way to encapsulate his grab-bag of ideas and influences, succinctly illustrating a 1980s cyberpunk lost future, a damaged childhood and a contemporary desire for understanding and reconciliation. More than that though, "Approach" is an album that feels both relevant and artistically nourishing - few ambient albums so cleverly wrap up these strange and uncertain feelings.