A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s third album finds them once again taking the idiosyncratic sound of their self-titled debut and reshaping it to fit inside a slightly different box. Iris is 41 of the 60+ minutes of the music Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie recorded for their soundtrack to the film of the same name, a sexy psychological thriller (en français) by actor/director Jalil Lespert that should get its North American release later this year. With its lush, moody strings and stately piano, the sound of AWVFTS is already cinematic. And, outside of the duo’s work, O’Halloran is an established composer for film. (His steadily growing list of credits includes Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Like Crazy and Breathe In from director Drake Doremus, as well as a recent collaboration with Hauschka, another pianist of O’Halloran’s ilk, for the movie Lion.) But what’s on disc here is both a continuation and a departure for AWVFTS.
About the soundtrack, O’Halloran and Wiltzie have said that “…trying to survive the process of creating the modern film score is not for people with fragile egos. It requires those who are the most responsive to change.” It’s easy to take this as a sort of disclaimer. At first listen, Iris seems to be the sound of AWVFTS just repurposed for the tone and pace of contemporary film-noir. But, like that debut album, deep listening is rewarded and we find that the glossy sheen of this very professional sounding production rests on top of some enjoyably listenable sonic set pieces. Honestly, not every track on the album deserves a re-listen. Still, there are a number of really strong pieces here.
Standout track “Fantasme” starts with a solo bass line on modular synth, a simple five-note figure that alternates between a static ground note and a few stops higher in the scale, sliding gamely up and down with a sweeping glissando that suggests the pure low-frequency sine-wave of the Roland TB-303 in slow-motion. Strings soon join in, with held tones in the foreground and some chaotically shifting mid- to upper-range glissandos in the background, adding (with a very light touch) the texture and character of Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” The score was recorded with a 40-piece string orchestra—and augmented with modular synth instead of O’Halloran’s typical piano—and they sound particularly expansive on this track, helped perhaps by some artificial reverb and/or delay. One of the things that makes “Fantasme” stand out is the vaguely playful quality of that bass line. It’s both a welcome counterpoint to some of the more generically cinematic aspects of the score and a reminder of the cockeyed humor that has at times accompanied the music of AWVFTS (and Stars of the Lid before them).
“Metro, Pt. 3” is another highlight, in this case largely because of how well it encapsulates the sound of the album while showcasing the narrative aspect of what makes the record so suitable for film. There are some six or more sections here (depending on how you decide to delineate one from the other), all corralled under a simple ABA structure and strung together in such a way that the seams are difficult to spot. Once again, long, held tones in the strings wash in and out of the aural picture, accompanied by the synth, this time playing in the mid-range and at mid-tempo a repetitive line that again suggests a sequencer like a 303. (In fact, this part of the track could almost be mistaken for an outtake from Nils Frahms’ recent live album Spaces.) Other sounds in the mix include some metallic scraping and a low-range, monophonic pulsating line on the synth. That pulsating sound borders dangerously on omnipresence elsewhere on the album, but here it’s restrained enough to add and not detract from the sound. Like “Fantasme,” “Metro, Pt. 3” is successful largely because it’s able to blend several distinct elements into a satisfying whole, both homogenous enough to the passive listener (or viewer) to be ignorable and intriguing enough to someone who’s actually paying attention.
Meanwhile, “Galerie” has the same satisfying depth and cohesion but is manifestly more simple. It is also, perhaps, the track that most resembles the pure, non-programmatic incarnation of AWVFTS available on their debut. An uncomplicated but imposing piano-plus-synth-and-reverb line dominates the track, both dark and hopeful. It’s enveloped in droney strings, tinkling upper-register piano, and another repetitive synth sequence low in the mix. Together they are all more than a little bit reminiscent of “We Played Some Open Chords,” the first track on that debut album. Other strong tracks on Iris include “Gare du Nord, Pt. 1” and “Comme on a Dit.”
While in the end fans may prefer AWVFTS’s first album, a careful listener to this latest revision of their sound will likely conclude it’s a worthy effort. For those heartened by the duo’s ability to keep adjusting their aesthetic for new purposes, O’Halloran and Wiltzie are already working on the score for another film due later this year, director John Curran’s Chappaquiddick.