It is with great trepidation that I approach A Shadow In Time, the new album from William Basinski, that titan of ambient music. An artist with a staggering work rate and whose most well-known work, 2002’s Disintegration Loops, is one of the most important pieces of sound art created in the 21st century given its context in proximity to the attacks on New York City on September 11th 2001. A Shadow In Time is his twentieth album under his own name, along with many collaborative works in various other mediums. It is yet another daunting work, comprised of two tracks over a forty-three minute running time.
The first piece has been described by Basinski as his “elegy for David Bowie”, reflected in the title ‘For David Robert Jones’. The track is built on one of Basinski’s signature tape loops, sounding like a distant choir but with a short burst of sound in the loop which gives rhythm to the piece. This steadily decaying loop holds until the introduction of a distorted saxophone melody after six minutes, which is the harshest sound on the record. Basinski himself has compared this to the saxophone playing on ‘Subterraneans’, from Bowie’s seminal 1977 album Low. That’s about as far as the similarity goes though as the saxophone is so heavily treated that it barely resembles the original instrument, sounding almost like a human voice calling a congregation to prayer at points.
The result is a hypnotic composition, one in which the various elements seem to float in and out of time with one another. If you concentrate hard on the saxophone loop then the tape loop seems to rise up against it in unexpected places, its warmth contrasting with the harshness of the saxophone. The minutes drift by and when the track starts to fade out you’re surprised as it feels like no time has elapsed. It is a wonderful piece and a standout in Basinski’s catalogue.
The title track is less successful. Dropping the tape loop approach for layered drones, the track drifts without any real progression. It hangs in the air with a muted stillness for most of its twenty-three minutes, with the occasional upsurge from a background drone pushed to the forefront. After roughly fifteen minutes the drones fade to near silence, replaced by a simple melody on a piano treated with reverb. This section, while pretty in its own right, jarrs with the rest of the track, with no real link between the two sections. Had it been developed into a piece of its own or been designated as a separate track then maybe it would have worked but it feels shoehorned in here.
A Shadow In Time is not the greatest entry in Basinski’s vast discography but it is very much worth a listen on its own terms. ‘For David Robert Jones’ may go down as one of the best ambient pieces released this year and is worth revisiting again and again. As an elegy to Bowie, it is without doubt one of the best pieces of art committed in his name since his death but, more importantly, it stands on its own as a fantastic piece. May Basinski keep making music this good for many years to come. Darren Keane