Described by Lawrence English as a record of “protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures”, Cruel Optimism finds him focussing on power relations in the new era of extreme fragmentation which draws ever-nearer. Using the sound of Australian Voices as a reference point and with the aid of a host of international guest collaborators, English sets out to explore this apparently bleak worldview with, perhaps surprisingly, even some quite optimistic sounds emerging along the way.The album sounds genuinely, envelopingly huge, billowing clouds of texture and shimmer crushed up against heavyweight blows often that seem to swell up from nowhere, then fade into otherness, voices drifting, unfolding, floating. That these are of human origin is perhaps discernible, but those sounds could also be a Mellotron if such an instrument was ever made to sound purer and even more ethereal. Likewise, the instrumentation of illustrious guests such as Mats Gustaffsson, Tony Buck (The Necks) or Norman Westberg and Thor Harris of Swans is blended so thoroughly by English as to become swallowed whole and enthrallingly into the complete work, rather than providing immediate and identifiable cues for personalisation. This is not to suggest that pianos (prepared or otherwise), cymbals and other instruments are not audible — they most certainly are, from time to time, if not always identifiable as such — but more to indicate that the sum is so very much huger than its components. Together they create a grandeur out of the sway and swirl of tones and rumbles, gliding and unfurling across the ten tracks (which are best considered as movements in the same continuous work rather than as discrete elements) in a slow-motion hypnotic spray.
Nowhere is this more evident on the predatory whirr of “Negative Drone”, accompanied by a video of surveillance and attack footage from an armed UAV, the signature image of warfare of the modern age, remote and deracinated, observed and cybernetically controlled through screens at a distance. As the reticle slides over the heatprints of figures of the all-too human targets in the cold, darked landscape, so the sounds swell and brood, focussing on the moment of inverted infra-red destruction before the camera pans away in search of yet more opportunities for detached killing. English crafts tension and disturbance from the morass of repeating percussive strings that flow among the (obviously) drones, heaving in a sustain and release that anticipate and enhance the inevitable, dreadful moment of each attack.Comparisons to the likes of Lustmord and Thomas Köner can be drawn if so desired, and Cruel Optimism shares that similar sense of immensity that said composers offer across their extensive and highly influential oeuvre. But English possesses an equal stature and capability, channelling the sublime and the breathtaking into soundscapes that often provoke an attention-grabbing response similar to that engendered by the wonders of the natural world as much as through the sounds that he brings forth here.