Cruel Optimism is the follow up from ambient artist Lawrence English to 2014’s Wilderness of Mirrors. This was an album that at it’s best was some of the best ambient drone to be heard (Another Body is a masterpiece), but it was unfortunately inconsistent as a full album, some tracks not generating the same kind of atmosphere that the rest did, ultimately letting it down. The new album however is consistent throughout, thirty-eight minutes of music, which though separated into ten pieces, fits together so neatly it could be one long track. Described by English as “one of protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures”, it’s a rumination on the negative way in which the world has been heading in the last few years – from the refugee crisis and the increasing use of drone strikes in the middle east, the black lives matter movements in America and the continuing struggles for equality in his native Australia, to the disenfranchisement shown in the low turnout for voting in both the EU referendum and the US elections. He also calls Cruel Optimism “a meditation on these challenges and an encouragement to press forward towards more profound futures”. And this unease is something that comes across throughout the album, while the music can be described as ambient, it’s not a relaxed listen, the atmosphere is moody and completely visceral, one feels you could almost reach out and touch it. The music is so vibrant and bristling with energy and tension it evokes the oppressive feeling of the cold and humid air just before a storm hits, as it’s met by the texture of rain, crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning – a feeling that matches the themes he’s trying to evoke. English creates soundscapes that you can almost feel just as much as you can hear.
As mentioned previously, the album sounds more like one long piece than a collection of tracks as the ten pieces here fit together so well. The music is based on noisy ambient textures droning away, evolving and flowing throughout the album through different moods and feelings. The opening piece Hard Rain wraps gorgeous soft synth tones in laptop distortion, with a faint trace of a choral synth tone, the tones swirling around in an ocean of sound. It’s beautiful but brooding, it has a slight air of melancholy. Along with proceeding The Quietest Shore, a less intense piece with more bassy drones, it flows into the aptly named Hammering A Screw which begins with a crash as percussive brass drones hammer away throughout the piece, still laced in the a noisy distortion that makes it sound like the wind. It immediately evokes the image of a thunderstorm with the crashing percussive sounds and the airy distorted ambience that’s gone from swirling around to crashing together in a maelstrom, before flowing into The Crow which retains this intense atmosphere as noisy distorted tones rumble and flow together in a sound that’s oppressive, bleak, and melancholic, and yet slightly blissful – as one feels when inside during a storm outside
The album continues moving in this journey, between periods of relent on Requiem for A Reaper – Pillar Of Cloud, dramatic buildup with low synthesised strings on Exquisite Human Microphone and all out storm on Object of Projection, where you can almost feel the touch of rain on your skin. With the album being mostly brooding and dark, in line with the themes behind it’s conception, the last piece Moribund Territories starts off in the same way with dark dramatic strings, but throughout the piece, like light shining through clouds it brightens up with more choral synth textures and relaxed ambience, giving the suggestion and hope that the future may not be as bleak as we think.
Cruel Optimism is like very few ambient albums I’ve heard in that it’s so visceral in it’s approach to sonic textures, resulting in sounds that make you think and physically feel. The distortion he buries his sounds in is so masterful and controlled, it’s a fantastic listen that’s a standout of the last few years of ambient music, it much surpasses his last effort and I’m not sure that there’s anyone quite doing what English has done here. An instrumental protest album may seem strange, but the album says what it needs to without the use of words.