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Album Review/ A Winged Victory For The Sullen - The Undivided Five

The magnificent, sustained walls of sound, and the subtle, more intricate musical choices animate its complexities. Both demand your attention.

By Alfie Perry-Ward, Third Year History

Made up of Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, the duo that perform as ‘A Winged Victory for the Sullen’ boast musical achievements as individuals that are by no means small.

As a pianist O’Halloran scored director Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ and collaborated with Hauschka while scoring the emotional ‘Lion’. Likewise, Wiltzie has scored Hollywood films such as Johannsson’s ‘The Theory of Everything’ and Jake Scott’s ‘American Woman.’ As Winged Victory, they have released two previous studio albums as well as collaborating with the respected Wayne McGregor Dance company on a ballet performance. Wayne McGregor had been a fan of Winged Victory before reaching out, using their music to warm up his dancers.

The Undivided Fivecomes at an interesting time for the duo. Their most recent work is the first time since their debut where the inspiration was entirely their own, rather than a collaborative project. It is reflective as much as it is progressive. Its influences are eclectic. The first is Debussy whom they denote the first track to in 'our Lord Debussy'. The second, more formative influence is Hilma Klint. Born in 1862, Klint was Swedish artist and a mystic whose work has been credited as the first among the abstract style in the West. She was part of a collective called 'The Five' who believed in the worship and reverence of an unknown ‘guiding hand’ of the universe. In the album, the recurrence of a perfect fifth interval is what ties the pieces together.

‘Our lord Debussy’ is for instance large scale and sustained, as is ‘Sullen Sonata’. On the contrary, the third piece, ‘The Haunted Victorian pencil’, is so subtle as to be chilling. The ‘Slow descent has begun’ fits well in the middle of the album. The start is measured, but it evolves into a real wall of sound, pertaining to the kind of ambience that Winged Victory are known for. The strings in the middle are a very simple texture, but with the addition of some grainy reverb they collapse into something quite directionless. The last ten seconds of the piece just dissolve, and you're left with the sense that you haven't really gone anywhere.

It’s clear that the next piece, ‘Aqualung, Motherfucker’ was placed strategically. To have such a tongue-in-cheek title in the middle of what many would consider a serious musical endeavour reveals the self-awareness that Winged Victory have. It’s almost self-mocking, and a humorous antidote to the profound themes explored.

The album was initiated in conjunction with the death of a close friend of the duo. Soon after the funeral, O'Halloran found out that he would be having a child. Considering both these events, O'Halloran found inspiration in the Hilma Klint's art, and how the contradictions and continuities between life and death revealed themselves. These are the essentials of the album: life, death, after-life and everything in between.

The later pieces in the album are just as nuanced in their sound as the former pieces. 'Adios Florida' again uses long intervals coupled with confusing orchestral overlays. Winged Victory experiment with volume a lot throughout the album ranging from overwhelming to near enough silent. Most pieces start and finish quiet, but in between there is so much multiplicity.

This multiplicity is informed by the range of locations at which the recordings of the pieces were taken. An old Hungarian radio station from communist occupied Budapest, a studio in southwest Iceland and Saint-Jean-Baptiste convent in Brussels are three of the places that demonstrate the sparse roots of both the music and the identities of its makers.

Photo Credit: Jónatan Grétarsson

The final piece, ‘Keep it Dark, Deustchland’ alludes to another place of recording. A very melancholy sequence of piano chords accompanied by a low cello. Its simplicity makes it a suitable choice to close the album for it draws together a nexus of sounds experienced in every piece. It closes an impressively rich album. The magnificent, sustained walls of sound, and the subtle, more intricate musical choices animate its complexities. Both demand your attention.

In a recent New York Time article, writer Rainesford Stauffer lamented, 'I wish people knew that my generation wants more than to optimize our lives, or to feel trendy because of how fast we’re hustling. I wish slowing down didn’t feel like a luxury.' In a world that demands immediacy in everything we do - agree or disagree, remain or leave, smarter thinking, optimal performance, faster connection – it is no surprise that reflection and contemplation should seem, now more than ever, so revolutionary. The Undivided Five may offer us just that opportunity - to slow down and take a minute.