John Davis, ‘Ask the Dust’

Posted by on November 5, 2013

Students of Decay, 10/15/2013

There are moments on John Davis’ new LP where so many sonic elements contest with one another that a listener, overwhelmed, could be dissuaded from venturing any further into the record. But just as enough sound piles on top of itself, Davis pulls the rug out, sometimes leaving only a simple feedback loop or light piano chords in its absence. He continues this pattern throughout Ask the Dust, a set of five beautiful pieces of warped, distorted noise juxtaposed with moments of delicate beauty. This is music that requires an attentive and patient listener. Sure, one can put the record on while working or studying, but that would allow its subtler qualities to slip away. It took a while for me to let the record truly sink in, as I initially put it on while working; only with my attention focused could I begin untangling the intricate beauty of the often dense sonic world that Davis has created.

Ask the Dust includes two long-form tracks, opener “Superpartner” and “Synecdoche,” that require a bit of unpacking before tackling the shorter pieces. The former weaves intricately layered collages of noise that gradually give way to light, ambient whirls of keyboards and loops. This allows listeners a chance to catch their breath and focus on that one hypnotic sound emanating from their speakers. Gradually a new set of sounds, samples, and noises enters the fray, building to a climax that collides different elements with one another before they quickly dissipate together. “Synecdoche,” on the other hand, begins softly, with a solo piano providing the only accompaniment for the first three minutes, before wandering into the void for the track’s remaining time. What follows is a pulsing, hypnotizing drone that lures you in without giving any indication of where you might go next. The final half of “Synecdoche” builds to a minor crescendo that doesn’t provide a cathartic release of any kind; rather, the haze of guitars coupled with unidentifiable bits of chaos give way to a relaxing finale that provides an ideal comedown from the moments of intensity that preceded it.

While the longer pieces offer moments of minimal ambience that allow the listener to take a step back and contemplate what’s going on, for the most part the three shorter works pile on the noise and the drones, making for an initially jarring but ultimately satisfying listen. “Joy Meridian” offers fractured bits of treated sound that pierce deep within your ears, only letting go as that track segues into the next. “Palestrina” offers a respite of sorts from its predecessor’s tumultuous sonic collage, with hints of piano layered deep beneath swirling effects that render an ethereal quality that is haunting in its fragility. The album closer “Julian Wind” walks the line between the ambience and noise heard on previous tracks, only this time the musical framework is more melodic than harsh. The spoken word sample that closes out the record offers an appropriately unsettling tone for an album that juxtaposes moments of unconditional beauty with lengthy forays into the darkness.

What works best about Ask the Dust, and this goes for anything on the Students of Decay roster for that matter, is that it is an album that rewards patient listeners. The first few spins offer brief hints of satisfaction, but certain segments need more time to unfold. John Davis may not appeal to everybody, and one would imagine that he is content with that. If you are willing to stick around and give Ask the Dust the time it deserves, then you are sure to discover something special each time.