Sound track: “Xenography” by Chris Stack

Chris Stack Xenography

One of my favorite books, as a kid, was Walk When the Moon is Full by Frances Hamerstrom. It’s a culled-from-real-life story about two children growing up in rural Wisconsin who ask their parents, “Do we have to go to bed early every night until we’re grown ups?” So the deal is struck — there are 13 full moons each year and on those nights the children and their parents explore the natural world by moonlight. It’s wonderfully magical and ’70s-era innocent; it’s a meditation on myriad worlds out of eyesight but within the world we inhabit. It’s about being quiet, watching, exploring, cultivating a sense of wonder.

I say all of this because Xenography, the new album by composer and musician Chris Stack, could score that book. Not that it is, in any way, a children’s album (not that it isn’t, either). But it’s intensely observant and deeply peaceful. It’s not an album that commands you to listen, that stage dives and struts and makes a spectacle of itself. But to really pay attention to the 10 bandcamp tracks/12 full-album download tracks is to dive into a quieter, slower-paced place; a place welling with its own life forms and pulses and magic.

“Swamp and Circumstance” leads the collection with twilit twitters and shudders. It’s electronic but could almost be a field recording from the insect-thick edge of a pond. Still but busy; organic but innately rhythmic.

There’s a steadiness, a kind of sturdy, understated quality to “The Last Wolf on Hokkaido.” While the title calls to mind untamed (or, perhaps, overly tamed) wilderness, the track is more of a regal stroll through night-dark scenery and otherworldly shimmer.

The title track, whose rhythms were created with Ableton Live, feels both spiritual and apocalyptic. It balances on an edge of composure and wildness, a tightrope walk over the lip of a volcano. Energy seethes in the barely-heard voices that call out beneath the staccato beats. It could be rain, it could be glass beads rattling against each other in the wind, it could be seed pods shaking on a tree.

There are two lamentations on Stack’s album. Both, though eerie, are more dreamy than sad. “Lamentation #1″ is a flat boat poled along a dark canal, drifting in an out of swirling fog. “Lamentation #2,” slower and deeper, is the murmur and float of the deepest dream — the nocturnal vision known only to the farthest reaches of consciousness and completely dissipated upon waking. Both tracks, Stack notes, were “made entirely from my (processed) voice.”

“Açaí Moon,” featuring the processed vocal of Alina Quu, is a stand out. Layered and mysterious, it tells a story that feels known, even though its language is untranslatable. Rhythms flutter and thud, instructing the body to dance while the mind releases into the gauze and sigh of the spare melody.

“Irgendwo” is a piano melody whose runs skip and fall like water along a sun-dappled creek. In fact, this might be the sunniest song in the collection. Also deserving of a superlative is “Reaching Aleppo,” an 18-plus-minute “extended synth-laden soundscape of middle-eastern scales and timbres ranging from raw to sublime,” according to Stack’s description. Local artist Sally Sparks Plays synthesizer and Haken Continuum on that track and to the softer “Twilight Greeting;” Greg Waltzer plays synthesizer and flute on the latter.

Both of the Sparks collaborations are available as bonus tracks on the full album purchase. Both are delightfully surreal, exploratory and restorative — in the moment and also on some deep cellular level.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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