Review: Eluvium – “Virga II”

When ambient composer Matthew Cooper released Virga I in December 2019 – ages ago, as the world turns – he had no reason to foresee what the second installment could entail. Perhaps none of us could. “I had recently been playing around with various forms of generative music and long-format looping – as well as practicing patience interacting with musical systems and recordings – hesitantly duetting with them, trying to keep things minimal while also encouraging as much depth as possible,” Cooper wrote online at the time the LP was released. This sense of minimal width or scope and unusual depth also pervades Virga II, the companion piece to Cooper’s first Virga work, which is out this week. But, more than that, the new record is an odd kind of reflection, a mirrored take, if you will, on the COVID-19 pandemic, through which Cooper toiled on the second set of Virga compositions.

The first piece on Virga II, appropriately, is steeped in anxiety and a sense of much-anticipated dread and it’s difficult to focus on anything other than a COVID-19-themed reading. “Hallucination I” is more structural than narrative-driven; it often resembles a block of sound-ice, melting, somehow not even visibly, as it slides glacially toward some unknown source of heat. But everything from the nervously looped drone-sounds to the surface-splashing synth hum to the repetitive murmur of a deeply buried faux-crescendo screams that the piece is being crafted, in real-time, by someone who is trapped in a tiny room with no way out but to ride that block of sound-ice to eternity. If that isn’t an interesting summation of the early stages of the pandemic, little else could be. The second track, “Scarlet Hunter,” takes the synth cue from a movie thriller – that knowing nod to the audience that something fraught with terror is about to unfold – and mutilates it over eight minutes, no breezy task.

What’s surprising about what could be Cooper’s refreshing take on COVID-19, though, is not the details of how it is enthralled with existential dread. It’s, instead, oddly enough, its sense of humanity and optimism. “Touch Returned,” the third of four compositions on the LP, is positively radiant in comparison to “Hallucination I.” Built, Vangelis-style, out of lush, colored synth washes and occasional hints of a breathy drone, the piece represents an end to hiding, the seasonal end of hibernation, and the sense – this might be reflected in the title – of embracing the touch of another human being. (Insert social distancing hashtag here.) While the comparatively upbeat piece’s running time (about 10 minutes) will make Fauci fans wonder why “Hallucination I” didn’t last 10 or 20 (or 500) times as long, it’s an interesting, if not quite literal, way to yield to the virus’ narrative “end.” (We hate putting “end” in quotes as much as you hate reading it.) “Virga II,” which closes the record at a run time of 11:08, echoes in a similar vein and has wonderful little touches that transcend into more universal narrative concepts.

It should be said that Cooper’s work here, if we’re reading it right, pales against the Basinski standard and Virga II, for all the inherent narratives its sound-shapes suggest, lacks the scope and weightiness of an opus like The Disintegration Loops. That piece, which still has an eerie resonance nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, worked conceptually, as well as structurally, as a piece of commentary on the current moment, a broken kind of zeitgeist. Cooper doesn’t lack vision – far from it – but it’s often tough to delve deep into the narrative form of his pieces, which don’t evolve enough to suggest someone human at the helm. Yes, Virga II can be an entrancing, even magical, ambient work, if sometimes slow to envelope you if you’re not trying too hard to read narrative cues between the lines. But, as a hot take on the state of society circa the first global pandemic in 100 years, it’s worth hearing – and embracing. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Aug. 10, 2021

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About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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