Nicholas Szczepanik, The Truth of Transience

Crawford Philleo

I want to start this review of The Truth of Transience by briefly mentioning the artwork, which isn't very well represented by the little 350 x 350 pixel approximation currently sitting right next to these words you're reading. If it looks familiar to ye who follow the musical meanderings of the Tome, that's because it is. This is yet another beautiful vinyl package from San Francisco label Isounderscore, again featuring a Clebcsh Graph designed by label-head Brandon Nickell. Putting vinyls out in this style began sometime last year with Rale's patient and passionate study in electro-acoustic minimalism, Some Kissed Charms That Would Not Protect Them, and it seems to be an ongoing theme with three more albums, all with foil-stamped covers but different designs and colors—this one, along with new drops from Dimmer and Concern. I can't speak for the last two since I haven't heard them, but Nicholas Szczepanik's contribution is another sink-into-the-couch mind-melter for sure. So much so that I think I'll have to give the other two a try if only to say I've got them (although I suspect the music buried in those ridiculously cool covers is equally as awesome). Isounderscore has created a real collector's series of records here in a way I haven't really seen anywhere else, and that (firstly) is a very cool thing.

So then (secondly), Szczepanik's music. Drone. It's drone, guys, make no mistake. But if you think this is run-of-the-mill, same-as-sand type drone, you'd be off the mark. Through two side-long works, Szczepanik has created something as sonically deep as it is linear and migratory. Even though both sides hang around one central key each (the droned tones, as it were), motion is still inferred within them, and more than that, felt and experienced. It has to do with simple musical tools like the almighty crescendo (a technicality for which Szczepanik has an uncommonly keen knack), having an understanding of the stereo space and bold explorations of sonic touch. If “music” has been historically defined as the combination of rhythm, melody and harmony, Szczepanik (as broad-sweeping of a statement as this is) seems to be redefining the term to place emphasis on dynamics, balance, and texture instead. And that's a concept I can really dig on—where once these elements were merely fanciful flourishes to make music more interesting, Szczepanik makes them critical to what the music actually is at its core.

Side-A is a bit more transparent in these ways. The piece begins by striking the eardrums with a soft synth blast that immediately decays, followed by a set of high-pitched feedback sounds that breathe in and out as if in an insanely slow tremolo while also slowly creeping across left and right channels (by the way: headphones, kids). The piece eventually introduces a sinister rumble in the bass register that slithers up from the bottom, eventually lifting the entire mix up to a throbbing potential before softly letting it land, only to build once again to a thrilling conclusion. So with side-A we have some ups and downs. With side-B, there's really only one direction, and that's up. Or “out” might be more apt here. The piece presents listeners with perhaps the most drawn-out, elongated build in LP history—just a solid, steady rise of a wavering chord, gradually gathering buzzing sounds, squeals of feedback and crunchy distortion into an overwhelming climax that just… climaxes and then stops. And when it does finally stop, there's an incredible moment of realization as to just how loud and crazy things actually got, which is especially loud and especially crazy. And that's another thing Szczepanik excels at, especially with this album—subtlety. Pay attention, try as you might to pin down points of reference and it doesn't seem to make any difference. Szczepanik's obssessive attention to the details of the three elements we've been talking about (dynamics, balance, and texture) are all so carefully considered that their execution is flawlessly smooth, creating two wholes that are both homogenously fluid in design.

Last, I'm still trying to figure out the title of the record. Maybe it means something like Szczepanik is taking short moments of time and exploding them into massive musical pieces, and often the record does sound like it could be a split-second of sound just happening in super, super, super, super slo-mo. Or maybe it's hinting that these massive musical pieces (a full side of a record is nothing to scoff at, even though each is only about 15 minutes long) are as transient as life itself after all—life is short, isn't it? Brevity made lengthy, or lengthiness made brief? Either interpretation seems to work in my head, though I tend to disagree with both. In fact, Szczepanik makes music that, though it certainly begins at the beginning and ends at the end, feels like it lasts forever when you're inside of it. And in many instances throughout the album, you're bound to wish that it really would.

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