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Artist: Main

Album: Ablation

Label: Editions Mego

Review date: Apr. 15, 2013

My family is scared of Ablation. When I put it on the stereo, my wife immediately tenses up, my 2-year-old son starts crying and my daughters insist I take it off immediately and put on Rihanna. It’s been relegated to headphone listening, so as not to cause any more harm.

But what scares them so much? The album is not noisy in the conventional sense. There are no jarring cuts, piercing frequencies or painful volume. It doesn’t build tension like a horror soundtrack builds tension — no screams, dissonant chord progressions or intense climaxes here. What it does have is a malevolent presence made of sub-bass, an upper register that hums like a glass harmonica, swarms of dappled, detailed static and manic percussive gestures that creak and snap through the mix.

But it’s from these more subtle ingredients that Ablation gets its underlying dread. Every sound on the album is disguised, mutated and transformed from whatever it was into echoes and phantoms, something almost recognizable — but not quite. And it’s in that almost that we start to understand what is so frightening about this album: Ablation is made of ghosts.

More specifically, its four parts are ghost stories, and Robert Hampson and Stephan Mathieu are the storytellers. Both have made much of their careers out of spectrally processing their source material into dense fogs that suggest, but never reveal, their source material. Hampson has used everything from guitars and synthesizers to field recordings and musique concrete, while Mathieu has investigated the spectral resonance of shortwave radio transmissions, early 20th century instruments and 78 rpm records.

On Ablation, the blend of their sounds is impeccable. Whereas Hampson has always been about space his compositions, Mathieu has explored density and depth. Here, Hampson’s spatial sense balances with Mathieu’s thick, hypnotic waves. The crevices in Hampson’s pulse give rise to Mathieu’s swelling harmonics, the two coalescing then dissipating, then reforming. It’s like a dance between two translucent bodies, with moments of unity and moments of separation, one haunting the other.

But what are ghosts really? Supernatural explanations aside, they are stand-ins for a very human faculty: memory. Memories, like ghosts, are the past come back to life. They are images we carry with us of some past place, event or person, images we transform each time we revisit them or pass them on to someone else. They are reminders of a simple, melancholy fact: the past is gone. We don’t have it anymore, if we ever did. All we have are memories. So the irony is that it’s not the future, the unknown, that frightens us in ghost stories; it’s the past and its irretrievability. This is why Hampson and Mathieu’s ephemeral web of sound scares us. It forces us to reckon with the everyday but profound truth that our past, and much of what we build our selves around, is just that: ephemera, ghosts, something we can’t even be sure exists. Ablation hovers just beyond our reach, and at the moment you think you’ve grasped it, it slips away. But you can’t ignore it. It will come back to you.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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