Grunge icon Mark Lanegan lends an uncommon gravitas to Not Waving's inventive synth pieces.
Lanegan, a grunge icon, has established an inquisitive solo career outside of Screaming Trees, the band he emerged with in the '90s. While primarily operating in the rock and folk domain, his various solo and collaborative projects have veered towards the unconventional. He's also dabbled in the dance music world. He featured alongside Art Department, Warpaint and Martina Topley-Bird on a surprisingly decent cover of The xx's "Crystalised," and gave a powerful spoken-word turn on Dave Clarke's "Charcoal Eyes (Glass Tears)."
Still, it comes as a pleasant surprise to find Natalizia and Lanegan combining for Downwelling. The album's tone is world-weary, but not hopeless. Even as Lanegan sings about death and the flaws of human existence on "Signifying The End," Natalizia's poignant lead is melancholy rather than bleak. In the world the duo create here, Lanegan's anonymous characters are grizzled anti-heroes facing down existential demons and end-of-days scenarios. But it's not as nihilistic as that might sound—Lanegan expresses these themes with a tone of acceptance and realism. Responding in kind, Natalizia's compositions occupy an emotionally ambiguous space.
Downwelling moves freely between different ideas. There are moments where found-sound textures clatter into earshot. Purely instrumental pieces like "Lights Of Canopus" pit atonal shreds of sound against each other, in stark opposition to the melodies that back Lanegan's vocal tracks. There's a roughshod quality to the LP, and it's succinct—nine tracks spanning less than 40 minutes. Even though it was reportedly pieced together over a number of years, Downwelling seems instinctively expressed rather than laboriously created, and the rawness lends itself to the overall mood.
There is barely any percussion on the record. When the beats do come through, they're far from standard. "Burned Out Babylon" is a seething, grinding track with fuzz that matches Lanegan's gravelly voice, but the groove is shaped by sculpted synthesis rather than tired drum machine hits. On "Murder In Fugue," slow-sweeping pad tones wheeze out under another of Lanegan's reckonings. By the time he calls out "Someone call the doctor / Someone call an ambulance / Someone call the cops," the rippling pulse has locked you into the protagonist's downward spiral.
By and large, though, it's an album of delicacy, especially on the beautiful, cascading arpeggios of "Persimmon Tree." Lanegan's voice is consistently close in the mix, accentuating its gruffness and vulnerability. As it glides between distinct pieces, Downwelling plays out like a collection of fragmented short stories. There is little context to these vignettes, but it hardly matters. The man could read out a copy of the Angling Times and make it sound like a haunting fable.
When the cut-up fiction concludes with the finest track on the album, "The Broken Man," we hear Natalizia at his most composed, crafting a melodic phrase of fragile beauty behind Lanegan's pleading questions. "Who'll stitch my wings back together / Who'll fix this broken man?" he asks. But the line is not so much an enquiry of desperation as it is an existential meditation. It's a fitting note to end this magnificent yet subtle album, where the big questions that confront us remain tantalisingly out of reach.