The Bay Area is a flourishing, abundant ecosystem of eclectic styles and emerging artists. The section of the American West Coast was once seen as a home to, primarily, instrumental hip-hop, psychedelic rock and thrash metal, but nowadays a closer look reveals a shift towards eclectic and liberal slices of sub genres. Wes Willenbring might not match thrash in terms of sheer speed, but it does perhaps rival in intensity, of a most different kind. He certainly isn’t immune to the area’s diversity, as his minimal, modern classical music acts as a beautiful contrast to the more prevalent genres, and is proof that musical styles can co-exist anywhere. Leaning towards dark ambient and drone, his pieces are quietly beautiful, and for the first time on Weapons Reference Manual, slightly chilling. Radiating out from San Francisco, Willenbring’s music is far, far removed from any shining, commercial light. He instead illuminates his pieces with slow moving textures, which are hugely rewarding with patience. For this style of music to emerge from this area is testament to the vibrancy bursting from the West Coast, in music and life. Willenbring’s dark, minimal compositions have an intensity about them that requires us as listeners to give them the proper attention they call for.
Weapons Reference Manual, his third release, represents the coastline’s dark sectors, away from the sparkling, sunny rhythms and warm melodies, and toward an area where tourists are hastily ushered away from. And in this shaded area, something is happening. The seismic waves of drone rising out from the atmospheric fog have lost their innocence, flooding and consuming everything in deep tones of drone. Willenbring, much like his music, prefers to stay in the shadows of the drones, amid guitars radioactive with reverb and distortion, concealing the glare of the sun. They seem intent on destroying themselves, like the nuclear tests carried out in the desert. The vibrations shimmer uncontrollably, agitated and uneasy; the drones recall an underlying threat of a nuclear dawn. It is turbulent music that can reflect turbulent times, like drowning away the end of a long relationship with some shattering Sunn O))). The music kicks everything aside.
Willenbring’s music arrives unannounced, much like the quiet, reflective nature of drifting Ambient and modern classical music; but this serenity is only a mirage. His first two releases were more closely associated to modern classical music, although this is still recognisably his record. ‘Somewhere Someone Else’, (2007), laid down the foundations for a slightly darker shade of minimalism, with beautiful piano and guitar work. It felt warmer and amicable, with clean, untreated electric guitar tones and a care free nature which debuts often possess. On his sophomore album, ‘Close, But Not Too Close’, (2009) he continued in this refrained area, yet even at this early stage, the darkness inside Willenbring’s music wasn’t too far out of sight, and towards the end the music turned a shade darker, and just a hint of madness made its creeping presence felt. It has been trapped in ice ever since. Willenbring’s music always had a dark edge, so it seemed this was the way it was always meant to be. His ability to surround the listener with a thick layer of atmosphere never felt intruding and suffocating, up to now.
The instrumentation of guitar and piano hasn’t changed, but here the atmospheres have veered off into a different, darker area. In using only these two instruments, Willenbring has essentially restricted himself to essentials, to find the minimalism at their heart. This limitation helps to create a highly detailed sound. The slow pacing puts the emphasis largely on textural development, but that’s not to say that melodies aren’t present. On the contrary, Willenbring creates melodies as starting points, from which all additional layers lead off. Although the thick drones cut into the melodies and dilute them, they still survive in the mix, and placed next to the reserved minimalism at the heart of the music, he creates a contemplative and immersive world that is full of a dark realism. This realism works because of the nature of the drones. They aren’t always pretty or optimistic, like events in life. If his past flickered between dusk and the night, then this is the pitch black before a nuclear dawn.
Incoming helicopters of noise approach ominously, signalling the arrival of war. Blades of distortion buzz in ferocity on the opener ‘Dreams and Schemes’. It’s a turbulent and rocky opening which sets the scene with its dense atmosphere, and clouded with thunderstorms of reverb. The only other drone artist I can think of who creates atmospheres like this is Adam Wiltzie, who needs no introduction. Seemingly blessed with the ability to create immense tapestries of sound, the vibrations shake the very space; the music resonates so deeply that it sinks into the very roots, and with only an electric guitar and effect pedals for company, it’s very impressive. Willenbring, too, demonstrates an expertise at assembling deep layers and deconstructing sound. The true timbre of the guitar, the way it should sound, is concealed in effects that result in both an expansive and confined sound - the reverb counteracts against the subtle movements. The more closed off the listener is, the more new sounds are discovered. These are not idyllic sounds; they are quietly menacing and filled with a palpable tension, although they can still relax. Lustmord’s clouded and immense soundscapes can keep the listener on edge and in trepidation, often utilising the concept of an apocalypse - a recent collaboration with Biosphere exploring the Trinity nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert seems to suggest that the threat of war, the danger of self destruction and the ever present psychology that sticks to it, is approriate subject matter for dark ambient.
Willenbring also realises the importance of space. Silence is just as important as the notes, as Victor Wooten describes in his book ‘The Music Lesson’: ‘If there were no rest, all music that was ever played would still be playing’. It’s a distressing thought. The second piece, ‘People Disappear Every Day’, still stays in the mind, despite it being just slightly over two minutes. An acoustic guitar is used most prominently, echoing from a deranged distance. At first, it can appear dissonant, with intervals that our ears aren’t used to, and this adds to an ever growing unease. However, it gradually warms and becomes quite a beautifully deranged sequence. The length allows the listener to leave before the visiting hours end in the asylum. The textures soar like a mushroom cloud ever upwards, and then fall back to Earth, gliding quietly like falling leaves. ‘Consequences of Recklessness’ is spattered with light delay and a frantic, tremelo picked blur, the guitar cutting incisions from its blade, caught up in swirls of feedback. The ending of the piece is just as dramatic, as center of the piece is demolished, leaving clouds of reverberated dust scattered. The whole effect catches the listener off guard and is unexpected, which shows that Willenbring is constantly aware of what he wants. There is an uneasiness and false sense of security, like staring at an empty score with blank sheet music. Towards the end, glitched electronics remind one of early Growing and Christian Fennesz, a similarity that lifts the mood with a warmer harmony. This is Willenbring’s uncertain, endless summer.
Weapons Reference Manual is both introspective and unsettling. And yet, up to this point, everything was all a set up; a mere precursor. ‘Quaaludes’ eclipses everything that has come before it in the space of 15 minutes. Surrounded by a resonating, threatening drone, repeated notes slowly vanish, but only after triumphantly standing their ground. This track is the hardened soldier emerging from a battlefield. His piano - almost completely restricted on this album - closes with washes of pure tones, cleansing away the polluted, thick drone, leaving no trace of what just occured. The nuclear threat is a very real and present danger; it’s almost as close as Willenbring’s music is to our ears. Weapons Reference Manual is the cold, bluntly worded dialogue after talking has broken down; the ineffective politics in the face of one who is unwilling to listen, and the inevitable military aftermath. After listening, there’s a feeling that Willenbring is on the verge of a staggering release. Although a release with little variation can harm, this is the summit of his dark discography to date.
- James Catchpole