San Francisco – “The title comes from marketing jargon,” Autre Ne Veut helmsman Arthur Ashin explains in a statement. “It’s a term for the place we’re in now, where truth and transparency are just ways to sell things and honesty is its own kind of performance.” The eagerly awaited follow-up to Autre Ne Veut’s breathtaking 2013 sophomore LP Anxiety is apparently the second installment in what will eventually round out as a trilogy, and so Transparency hinges on moments that make it seem very “sequel-esque” while at the same time providing a very clear and very bold individuality that truly sets the album apart from Ashin’s earlier work.
Even just glancing at the album’s cover art one can see that there already is a similarity in aesthetic to Anxiety, as we see two pairs of ghostly hands supporting a quadrilateral glass pane, not so different from the pale white hands on the cover of Anxiety that are holding an empty wooden frame. While Anxiety explored themes of emptiness and isolation bathed in lush landscapes of sweeping electronic orchestration, Transparency seeks to educate its audience on the illusion of clarity, the hidden layers of molecules that make up the seemingly empty and unhindered space that allows our eyes to see the world around us. On his third LP as Autre Ne Veut, Ashin has constructed a kooky, through-the-looking-glass kind of world where his analog influences are dramatically magnified through bustling jazz-soaked arrangements that navigate an unpredictable sea of stormy electronics, glitchy distortions, and Ashin’s own signature, velveteen falsetto. Upon first listening to Transparency, we are immediately immersed in Ashin’s chaotic new universe that is both refreshingly avant-garde and unsettlingly audacious, though which each successive listen, the soundscape becomes more and more maneuverable and familiar, and Ashin’s radiant vocals transform from eerie narration into some sort of comforting spiritual guide, gracefully piloting us through this heavily introspective nine-track labyrinth of an album.
It seems that with each successive ANV album Arthur Ashin warms more and more to a more experimental approach. Transparency’s massive opening track, “On and On (Reprise)” is a re-working of an Anxiety-era Autre Ne Veut one-off single (that didn’t make it onto the album), swapping perky electronica and confident diligently metered rhythm for a veritable orchestra of dreamily meandering sound, meshing twisty piano riffs and light peppery percussion with unexpected interjections of digital sound, laying a cushy foundation on which Ashin’s vocals bubble along. As Ashin makes his way through the song, his vocal intensity ebbs and floes, and the improvisational manner in which his voice traverses the song’s snaking path echoes the jazz-like influence he experiments with multiple times over the course of the LP. At first this opening track seems hectic and unruly, though on the contrary it actually serves as a perfect introduction to Ashin’s new material as it allows the listener to find their footing on the grave terrain on which this album is built, and once we have, we are thrust immediately into “Panic Room,” a slick, shimmering song that chugs along with deep blooms of synths that erupt around Ashin’s choral refrain of ‘I don’t want to feel like you’re not here with me.’ Much of Ashin’s compositions feature vocal structures that are accentuated by angelic choruses of other voices—often mixing natural, distorted, and synthetic vocals—that give his songs an operatic, highly theatrical element, almost as if what he is communicating is somehow divine in nature, as exhibited in “Cold Winds” when he coos ‘I think you’re a God’ over such an arrangement. The song actually opens with a heavily digitized version of such a chorus that starts out sounding rather sinister but eventually softens as the song evolves from a turbulent confessional into a silky tribute to devotion.
A good deal of Age of Transparency is quite epic in nature, which perfectly reverberates the manic, maddening modern world we live in, on which much of the album’s forty-five minutes is spent commenting on. Our first taste of the LP was the “sequel” to an Anxiety track, “World War Pt. II,” which all but assaults us in the very first few seconds with a jarring ascending scale of robotic “I” sounds that somewhat strangely break apart the otherwise tame instrumentation, giving an otherwise straightforward track an element of uncomfortable grandiosity. The album’s title track “Age of Transparency” takes its time in building itself up, starting with hushed arrangements of piano, saxophone and some soft and scattered backing vocals, and eventually develops into a magnificently arranged song that juggles several musical components meticulously as it glides along. The album’s final song “Get Out” is also its longest at around seven and a half minutes, exploding with its very first moments of organ-tinged chorales that ring out like some heralded message from on high.
“Transparency is an impossibility,” Ashin has said in reference to his new LP. Such a statement can be taken many different ways. Are we ever truly transparent, even to ourselves? In reality, that which we may perceive as truth or clarity is often just one perspective, usually our own. What we see as empty space is actually quite full, we just perceive it as such because it’s easy to generalize the areas around us that are unoccupied as insignificant. The same can be said for human behavior: the things that are left unsaid, and what we choose not to express to ourselves and one another are often the most telling, honest aspects of our thoughts and emotions. How we feel may not take up physical space in our minds and hearts but that doesn’t mean that the space they exist in is actually empty or transparent. Arthur Ashin’s second installment in his trilogy dares to explore such an abyss, and does so without assumption or agenda. The songs are masterfully crafted and continue to speak true to Autre Ne Veut’s unique, lush sound. Age of Transparency doesn’t always spell everything out in black and white, but one can glean a lot of insight from what these nine songs present to us. You just have to look and listen closely, as there is an element of the infinite in even the tiniest of silences.