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Kronos Quartet with Bryce Dessner – Bryce Dessner: Aheym

on November 07, 2013, 12:00am

Perhaps one of the underlying themes of The National’s excellent Trouble Will Find Me is the reality of both the emotional and existential cycles that folks are pretty much doomed to face. The adventurous instruments imply some sort of journey for transcendence, but frontman Matt Berninger’s croaks suggest confinement — a man who’s trapped, yet optimistically looks at the outside world through a barred window. “I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with,” he informs on “Demons” before later saying “When I walk into a room/ I do not light it up” in a resigned baritone. Love and familiarity, disappointment and distance are cogs within the same clock here. On “Sea of Love”: “I see people on the floor/ They’re slidin’ to the sea/ Can’t stay here anymore/ We’re turning into thieves.” Corruption and love go hand in hand in Berninger’s world.

But what changes when you remove the Debbie Downer? You’d probably respond “Not that much” if told the album also involves a classical quartet. It’s a genre that lauds textbook musicianship, which is what a lot of Aheym (National guitarist Bryce Dessner’s first album as a composer, done in collaboration with the avant-classical Kronos Quartet) accomplishes through the four-track project. But, it’s what Aheym seeks to do with that musicianship that makes it a small gem.

Dessner said that Aheym was “written as musical evocation of the idea of flight and passage.” That pretty much encapsulates the project. If Berninger represented eloquent restraint, Dessner juxtaposes this by reaching out in an attempt to graze the possibilities outside the restrains. This isn’t gentle experimentation either; the album starts off with violence, as violins stab at the listeners. Dessner and company aren’t sidestepping boundaries here, but rather bashing right through them, gasping from emotional asphyxiation. The title track’s unrelenting violins thrill with a sense of percussive abrasion. No drums are necessary if it’s done this elegantly. The opener gives way to “Little Blue Something”, which is toned down a notch, but still carries the volatility of a frayed, active wire.

The Kronos Quartet carries a sense of adventurism akin to Dessner’s National pals, but their instrumentals work as more of a form of action than a single piece of the atmosphere, giving Aheym a tenser feel. But the journey can’t be composed entirely of buildup, so to fulfill the intended sense of wanderlust, the album switches into a steady exhale near the end of “Tenebre” as vocal samples chime in. It’s a decent section, but it feels a bit obligatory, especially as the song suddenly abandons the element by its crescendo.

The choir that sets off “Tour Eiffel” feels like a bit of a sidestep, given the more visceral tone that dominated just before. Even the guitar that hits the track feels like it’s trying to reach back to the more ethereal tone that came before it. It’s tame, too tame even, but it gives way to an epic final minute, when the aural space becomes engorged with mournful strings, pathos-appealing horns, and stuttering drums. It feigns ascension, and ultimately that’s the space the album succeeds in: the determination to eventually reach something — anything — even if everything will eventually return in the cycle.

Essential Tracks: “Aheym”, “Little Blue Something”