The last time Inventions released an album, Barack Obama was president, David Bowie was alive, and “Uptown Funk” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts. In that now-distant world of the mid-2010s, this experimental duo—comprised of Matthew Cooper (a.k.a. Eluvium) and Explosions in the Sky member Mark T. Smith—released two unusually stirring albums, 2014’s Inventions and 2015’s Maze of Woods. Both combined the soaring post-rock of Explosions in the Sky with mesmerizing traces of ambient, drone, and beat-driven electronica, and both drew deserved notice from experimental music fans.
Then the project seemed to recede as mysteriously as its drone pieces fade into silence. So Continuous Portrait, the duo’s first album in five years, is a nice surprise in a year full of unpleasant ones. It’s also one of the best experimental releases of 2020 so far.
Continuous Portrait doesn’t depart dramatically from the lively ambient sweet spot of Inventions’ previous work, but it does expand the duo’s sound to make deeper use of one element usually absent from Explosions in the Sky: the human voice. Tellingly, the album even begins with an explosion of laughter, which is quickly overtaken by the glimmering euphoria of “Hints and Omens.”
These tracks are ostensibly instrumental, insofar as there are few intelligible lyrics, but the most emotionally stunning moments hinge on sampled vocal textures. “Close to People,” with its interlocking synth sirens, draws sustenance from mysterious snatches of moaning and chanting—it sounds like a soundtrack to an otherworldly vigil. “The Warmer the Welcome” builds a tapestry out of harp and piano arpeggios, then clears space to deploy a distant, crackling sample of the 1920s gospel singer Washington Phillips. And “Saw You in a Movie,” the album’s climax, bolsters its groaning cinematic dread with a faint chorus of voices, sampled from a recording titled “Japanese choir in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.” The resulting track explores the tension between the lonely desolation of the underlying drone and the communal spirit of the choral voices.
This music flits easily between ambient and more overtly experimental passages, and it has a hypnotic way of creating beauty out of found sounds and sampled bric-a-brac from daily life. The mood shifts from ominous to soothing, often within the confines of one track. “Outlook for the Future” is playful, with bubbling woodwinds and ringing piano fusing together into an almost Reichian compound. (The song takes its title from a curious sample of an elderly woman asking: “What is your outlook for the future?”) The title track, one of the most remarkable pieces here, assembles a surreal collage out of bird calls, clanging silverware, minimalist guitar and fleeting fragments of human speech.
In fact, the way this record uses disembodied speech samples—with an emphasis on words’ sounds rather than their meaning—is occasionally reminiscent of The Books, another genre-blurring duo associated with Temporary Residence. (“Continuous Portrait” would have not sounded out of place on 2003’s The Lemon of Pink.) Not surprisingly, The Books, along with individual solo projects Zammuto and Paul de Jong, are thanked among a lengthy list of influences in this album’s liner notes. Yet, little information is available about how this album was constructed or its backstory. The music is simply presented to speak for itself. And this uncommonly adventurous album says a lot, even when its words are unintelligible.
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, VICE, and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek.