Sam Hilmer—the multi-talented composer behind Diamond Terrifier and New York abstractionist mainstays Zs—doesn’t play his main instrument quite as much as he violates it. Live, he shoves a microphone down into the bell of his tenor sax in order to run his squelches and bleats through delays and reverbs and echoes and loops. This, his new 33-minute composition in four parts, for Chris Taylor’s Terrible Records, pairs his sometimes velvety, sometimes percussive sax with a smattering of samples and Taylor’s reliably multifaceted production. On The Subtle Body Wears a Shadow, Hilmer has through-composed a cyclical, deconstructive excursion, creating a recording of drones and rounds and freakouts that look inward to make a cosmic existential statement.
The Subtle Body in the record’s title refers to an understanding of Eastern philosophy: that one must relinquish the illusions of the material world, including the subtle particulars of the body, in order to reach enlightenment and to eventually be spiritually reborn. It’s not a deep read, even on this largely instrumental album, because Hilmer gives us English snippets of the Sanskrit Bodhicaryavatara throughout. That’s not with a plodding spoken-word overlay or a cult-influenced chant. Instead, Hilmer has a computerized text reader dictate his chosen quotes, opening the record with a metallic shudder and this: “My enemies at length will cease to be; my friends, and I myself will cease to be; and all is likewise destined for destruction. All that I possess and use is like the fleeting vision of a dream. It fades into the realms of memory; and fading, will be seen no more.”
It’s distorted to the point it’s close to indecipherable. But it demands the listener actually listens instead of just hears, managing to be both a sort-of thesis statement and a tone color. It’s not often one thinks about Buddhism in a mechanical context. For me, at least, contemplating the Bodhisattva recalls riverbanks and mountaintop temples and the placid spaces the mind goes to hide from the clangor of industry or the voice of the computer. And though the saxophone has long been a tone color favored by New Age wonks, Hilmer’s methods here are relatively new to the typical canon of transcendence. Given the context and the process, there’s a narrative to the composition that mirrors the path to enlightenment.
The first movement relies heavily on a loop pedal, creating a hypnotic hairpin round that bobs back and forth between squeamish pitch-bends. Movement two dumps the looper slowly but completely. Hilmer noodles above a singular drone cautiously at first, but with more wild abandon as he goes on. By the time he’s pushed himself to his limit, he’s blending tones and blasting so ferociously it begins to sound like one smeared sound—and then Hilmer reaches one central note, before belligerent industrial percussion girds the piece and Hilmer as much as fights it. In the third movement, he manages to wrench a dive-bombing sound from his sax that could almost be mistaken for a bowed cymbal or the scrape of metal-on-metal. It’s above a looped, gentle bell melody (yes there is melody here). By the end of the record, Hilmer is reborn, returning to a less-processed version of his opening salvo, pairing the largely clean saxophone with another clip from the Bodhicaryavatara: “Humans long to free themselves from misery, misery itself they follow and pursue. They long for joy but in ignorance destroy it, like they would a hated enemy.”
To embody the Bodhicharyavatara, at least in this musical arc, one must force witness of the destruction of the self, to reach true enlightenment. Hilmer brandishes his sax meditations like a blade, condensing thousands of years of spiritual questing into 30 minutes of skronk and chirp, as much as pushing the compelled listener down the path, and giving Colin Stetson a run for best outr