Keith Fullerton Whitman


(Kranky; 2005)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

I spent weeks trying to figure out whether Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Playthroughs was a hoax. Why I decided it wasn’t has something to do with composition and, you know, that “technical” side of music that dilettante critics love to pass over in favor of merely describing whether or not they like the music. More specifically, it’s a remarkable album because it examines the microcosms of tone with the kind of deft, precise manipulation of space and density of sound that seems more befitting of a mathematician than of a musician.

But of course, that’s no guarantee of enjoyment. Part of the album’s mystery is in precisely why those tones are specifically so engrossing and emotionally hefty. Still, for some, they might appear merely as dry tinkering, unemotional because they’re so scientifically manipulated. You could be in either camp, and probably have a good argument for your case, especially if you’re a cognitive scientist. But regardless where in the (very small) debate you stand, it’s impossible to say that Playthroughs is pure garbage. That would be a statement of profound ignorance and an instance of failed engagement; there is nothing random or haphazard about the album.

The same is true for Multiples, but what makes it remarkable in its own right is that Whitman has stepped away from the minimalist feedback tones that informed what may very well be the best ambient drone album ever. It seems a risky move, but it’s also an unavoidable one, lest Whitman title this album Playthroughs 2. The question is now whether Whitman can pull of other efforts as beautifully as he did his few-toned ambient pieces.

I hate to say it, but Multiples certainly isn’t as beautiful as Playthroughs; at least, not to begin with. But if my speculation is correct, it’s because this album’s project is a bit more complex. Multiples is a far more percussive album than its predecessor, and it spends a good deal of time blurring the line between the ideas of musical notes and percussion. Its second track hosts shattering synthetic zaps and bleeps alongside more placid tones, tweaking the ones and then the others until their differences become at once more marked and more malleable. In its third track, buzzing synthetic swoons are dropped in like sparse drum beats. As is Whitman’s wont, there’s plenty of spatial and sonic tension that’s developed over the course of each piece, but the ingredients and their interactions have a vastly more contrasting effect. And in the fourth piece, Whitman does a brilliant job deconstructing multi-toned harmonic synth jabs until they become tottering percussive behemoths, all the while increasing the apparent anarchy of the piece with shots of high-pitched synths.

To be honest, all of the first four tracks are far less enjoyable than they are interesting. But Whitman saves the more visceral enjoyment for later, and when it does come, it’s nothing short of bliss. The fifth track does wonders with an angelic, slightly discordant piano loop; after establishing it as both a tonal and a rhythmic placeholder through repetition, Whitman gently embellishes it with subtly beautiful tones that eventually alter the track’s rhythmic pattern and establish a new, similarly evanescent one. And then he does one of his trademark introductions, bringing in a melodic synth line whose lovely contrast with the piano loop will put a lump into your throat. The piece evolves gorgeously onwards, building in muted intensity and dynamics up until a glorious fade.

The sixth track is almost reminiscent of Yo La Tengo’s The Sounds of the Sounds of Science in its aquatic splendor and spare use of rhythm. It’s the closest thing to a song that I’ve heard from Whitman, and it’s flawless. Gently building and receding into its patterns, it steadily plays with keyboard figures and regal atmospherics until it dissolves into gently competing, soothing synth lines and what sound vaguely like organs. The sixth track does similarly wonderful but certainly different work with, of all things foreign to drone, an acoustic guitar. And naturally, Whitman finishes with a masterpiece, the slowly ascendant eighth track, whose growth into Playthroughs-type bliss-tones is almost imperceptible, and all the more profound for its organic nature.

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Whitman that this work is just about as vital as his previous work, and that anyone seeking a refuge from the typical can always wrap him/herself in Whitman’s peculiar experimental beauty. But as an added bonus, despite its first four tracks, Multiples is also one of Whitman’s more accessible albums, whose final tracks should easily persuade even a new listener that this kind of forward looking composition is not only strange, but wonderful.