Having never heard, or even heard of A Winged Victory for the Sullen before, it was exciting for my first exposure to them to be a live performance, rather than a recording. It’s something very rare nowadays when it’s a risk to go to see a band that you might not enjoy, so this experience was a bit like a return to the past, when live music was the predominant medium.
My first impression was a comparison to a band I am a fan of – Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It is unfortunate that my instinct when hearing new music was to compare it to something, rather than take it on its own terms, but it was unavoidable. This performance had the same ethereal strings, the same droning rumbles that characterise the darker and slower composers within the ‘post-rock’ genre. However, one of the drawbacks of ‘post-rock’ is the constant knowledge of this impending climax. I often think this can take you out of the moment, knowing that everything is building up to something (unless it’s done well, as in GY!BE’s case). However, here there were no real climaxes, just warm layers that grew and swelled, with crescendos that were sometimes made up of merely floor-shaking guitar feedback. Some pieces were begun on piano, some guitar, and some had the string section as the focus, yet very quickly this opening instrument melted into the ensemble, becoming indistinguishable by the intermingling of each part’s melody. This aural facet was made better by the physical setup of the musicians. The piano faced the guitar and synthesizer, both of which shouldered the string quartet, who faced each other. This intimacy meant that throughout the performance, the musicians could see as well as hear each other, turning what could have been a spatial limitation into a more physical performance.
Each piece seemed to follow a continuous theme, yet the music never bored. Each part had been expertly composed, with subtleties and nuances that reward the close listener, while for the casual listener the overall wash of harmony was no less gratifying. During the second piece, as the strings faded away and the piano had long gone, a lone looped synth remained. I can only assume this loop had been occupying an unheard (to me) space throughout the song, adding to the general sound, only to be audibly revealed when the other instruments had been silenced. The next piece began with some pretty piano chords, soon punctured by discords and jarring melodies. This became the background to samples of distorted and unintelligible speech as, soon after, a guitar soaked in reverb drenched the room. A loud blast of feedback segued into the final piece, beginning with the previous song’s end, with string ostinatos cutting through, eventually giving way to a return of the voices. Just before the end, the strings came back into the forefront, drowning out the vocal samples until each string player fell off leaving just a solitary violin ostinato to grow quieter and quieter.
The end of the performance was met with huge applause as I found myself wanting to hear more of this atmospheric, cinematic sound that worked unusually well in the small reception area of the second floor. It came as no surprise to find out afterwards that members Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie were no strangers to film and television soundtrack work, their ambient style clearly able to be matched to any number of visually-evoked emotions. I would certainly recommend A Winged Victory for the Sullen if you’re a fan of any kind of instrumental music that includes a subtly classical flavour. It’s a kind of ambient music, but that sort of makes it sound like it should be put on in the background, like Dido. It’s not – this is well-composed music that deserves to be listened to attentively, but if you want you can also use it to turn your mundane tasks into a kind of Terrence Malick cinematographic experience.