It’s not so surprising that 2014’s Shortwave Nights, the debut album from Canadian duo Hiss Tracts, sounds similar not only to Godspeed You! Black Emperor music of the late ‘90s but also the two Set Fire to Flames albums: band member David Bryant collaborated on both those aforementioned groups while fellow Tracts member Kevin Doria made a name for himself as a member of drone projects Growing and Total Life. Though both players are known as guitarists in their respective groups, Hiss Tracts doesn’t so much make music as unleash collages of sound. Certainly, there are musical elements to this debut album, but there’s perhaps more a focus on ambient and found sound, leading the album to be a more rigorous listening experience than some may be accustomed to.
Possessing a dark energy derived from the continual background drone and use of odd and enigmatic dialogue samples, Shortwave Nights starts off with an ominous title track featuring echoed guitar springing forth from a gurgling background of rumbling low tones. The sense of uneasiness is palpable in this creaky opener, which may as well an alternate interpretation of any numbers of tracks from F#A#∞-era Godspeed since it gradually escalates in intensity before fading out amidst groaning strings. Second track “half speed addict starts with broken wollensak” is somewhat more hopeful, with repeating ethereal piano chords clanging throughout the duration of the piece while “slowed rugs” again plays like the soundtrack to the apocalypse. Here, warbly guitar melodies bellow out over whirring background organ before the piece culminates in a noisy eruption of discordant and hissy music box melodies.
The album’s second half alternates between more calming sections and genuinely unsettling ones, starting with a sort of placeholder track called “drake motel / ‘9 gold cadillacs’” that presents a wonderfully bizarre bit of found sound dealing with an old codger explaining some of his life philosophy. Subsequent track “halo getters” is full of dissonant chord structures, fluttering electronic elements, and jarring tonal accents while the overwhelming somber “for the transient projectionist” is propelled along by rich and moody cello. The self-explanatory “ahhh-weee dictaphone” sound sample leads into the album’s longest track,“test recording at trembling city,” which may be the piece which changes the most significantly from start to finish. Reminding me of the music heard during key segments of 2001: A Space Odyssey, “test recording” is initially peaceful but gets more and more menacing as it goes along, climaxing with a thunderous collision of screeching string tones. Serene and earthy concluding track “Beijing bullhorn / dopplered light...” tries its best to alleviate some of the tension that had been building up throughout the album, finishing things up on a comparatively bright note.
Though they've accurately recreated the sound palette used on classic Godspeed tracks, try as they might, Doria and Bryant can’t quite replicate the significance and undeniably poignancy of that material. I think part of that is due to the fact that we never get a warmer melodic section to counterbalance all the doom and gloom - eventually, a listener simply gets worn down by all the noise and unyielding sense of dread that permeates this album. Even if it is difficult to look past the fact that I’ve heard all this before (Shortwave Nights makes a nice companion to both F#A#∞ and the Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada EP and may as well be a continuation of ideas heard on those records), the album is entirely successful at creating dark ambient soundscapes. It’s far too “unmusical” to have mass appeal, but the intricate and gritty sound engineering does give it distinction and make for compelling listening – provided one can appreciate this type of material in the first place.
7.5 / 10
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