Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism (Room40)


Lawrence English can say his latest album is anything. There are no words, no reverential or even ironic uses of a particular musical form, no obvious signposts, so his inspiration or even intention can be pretty much what he suggests it is. Yet there’s no mistaking the intense power he is harnessing, his electronics possess an almost foreboding feeling that if he was so inclined they could do damage. In this sense it almost doesn’t feel like it has been composed, rather it’s part of the natural world, at times bleak, at others brutal, at others cathartic.

We’re dealing with dense swells of sound. Layers of drones and sonic residue. It’s some kind of amalgamation between noise music and ambient music, simultaneously existing in both worlds and neither. In fact it defies both definitions by the presence of the other. Noise has never been so seductive, so imbued with notions of beauty and ecstatic refinement. Ambience has never been so ominous, so brimming with the potential for violence. Yet there are no brutal or extreme sonics, no jaw clenching moments of difficulty on the path to transcendence, if anything all the rough edges have been rounded out, all the high frequencies are eschewed in favour of bottom end density. This music is thick, room enveloping, English is composing a storm. There’s a layering of ill-defined sounds and instrumentation that he only slowly and delicately reveals – often as his piece winds down and the music drifts into quiet contemplation.

In the main he’s experimenting with volume, dynamics and density, though also I suspect he’s experimenting with the ability to imbue grand emotional arcs into non-obvious experimental soundscapes, and using us as guinea pigs as he explores the effects of large bodies of sound on the body and mind.

The title comes from cultural theorist Lauren Berlant and in particular English is struck by the consumerist need that leads us further and further away from fulfilment, as well as notions of being possessed by trauma as opposed to possessing trauma – equating this to recent political developments in the US and the UK. Does this come across in the music? It’s there once you know it, and to be honest these references really do further cloak the music as experimental protest music. Once you know this you can’t unknow it, which is not necessarily a bad thing – because this is clearly the artist’s intention.

He’s joined by Swans’ Norman Westberg, The Necks’ Chris Abrahams and Tony Buck, Heinz Riegler, Mats Gustafsson, Werner Dafeldecker and The Angels of Light’s Thor Harris, though given the deep complexity and depth of the sound its difficult to know what and where they’ve each contributed. And to be fair it doesn’t really matter because Cruel Optimism is the kind of full-bodied emotionally transgressive, subdued brutality that we always knew he was capable of.

You can read our interview with him about this album here.


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.