With To the Dustů the San Francisco Bay Area ambient post-rock combo
Charles Atlas craft their most sophisticated statement,
merging bucolic guitars, plaintive piano and subtle electronics squiggles, interlacing them with
meticulously layered drones and quietly frantic, almost neoclassical underpinnings. The resulting album, unlike most, strives not for a goal or transcendental moment, but, like Sisyphus returning to his rock, articulates the possible value to be found
in holding still, returning to one's burden and living without accord.
Charles Atlas are multi-instrumentalist Sacha Galvagna, guitarist Charles Wyatt,
and piano/trumpet player Matt Greenberg, with support from vocalist Odessa Chen
and cellist Zoë Keating. While each piece from the their 2002 release, Worsted
Weight, made sense when looked upon as a part of a whole, like chapters in
a novel, each part of To the Dustů has a beginning, middle and end all
its own, as though the album were a bound collection of short stories.
If these songs are, indeed, like short stories, the shifting, fluid plots, together with the multiple traits fleshed out in each instrument's character (the starry-eyed piano on "Primo Levi," the sedate glockenspiel from "Corono Norco") suggest that each story has passed through numerous drafts, yielding a carefully meditated montage of menacing reverb, clanking percussion and tender piano refrains that establishes clear themes of late-night melancholic reflection. Despite this, the record doesn't flounder in its own doleful brooding or lapse into quietism, but expresses an outlook more aptly described as sternly optimistic.
Indeed, one of the album's finest moments arrives in the form of
"Chapultepic," when what begins with an interplay of sporadic, vacillating piano picks up its step and joins a crowd of instruments a bubbly electronic beat, trombone flourishes and spirited guitar playing as the formerly
sullen expression turns into a quiet joy.
Many of the pieces in To the Dust... are structurally bipolar: while
the piano or guitar melody, acting as a regrouping device, remains lodged in its
groove, repeating endlessly in post-rock fashion, the textures continually shift and commingle in a manner most beautiful.
"Signal Flags" opens in this way, with a solemn guitar arpeggio soon
attaining a sharp, echoing quality; chiming piano walks in and out of the piece as a marriage of woeful strings and trombone swells and gasps. Although largely
an instrumental effort, "Edith" reveals Odessa Chen's delicate, feathery voice. Her intimate whisper, which recounts Wyatt's blurred memories of his mother's life, is difficult to understand unless listened to attentively on headphones.
As though from the throat of a bird, her voice's warbling coo seeps
well into the extended reverberating tones and piano, thereby avoiding a
the common pitfall whereby the voice's lone appearance
emerges awkwardly, breaking the album's rhythm (see Fennesz's
Venice). Near the end, Chen's voice undergoes faint editing, her breathy
sighs isolated and reconstructed with the simple glee of a child taking apart
Elsewhere, the group allows the compositions to breathe freely, while maintaining a constant tension and balance. "Seven Digit Clock,"
with its reedy guitar pattern, whirring generator-like drone and gritty,
crackling radio transmission, is mechanical yet loose, with minor events and
differences temporarily diverting the clock's pulsing repetition.
At last, To the Dustů fades away as "Dipole Moment" borders
on the territories of a sound collage, recalling Set Fire to Flames. Rustling
squalls are oppressed by an unending hum whilst astringent, quivering
electronic murmurs and a strangled, despondent guitar escalate for a moment
before carrying on in their somber stride. At such a seeming crest, one has
come to expect some form of release a transcendental moment, if you will. Instead, this effort stays true to a reflective state that speaks to both
the band's engaging maturity and the album's underlying themes.