Richard Youngs – River Through Howling Sky

Richard Youngs
River Through Howling Sky

Given how experimental and avant-garde music is unclassifiable and indefinable by design, it seems somewhat counterintuitive that a fair deal of so-called contemporary art music tends to sound fairly analogous. Although the relatively blank template of droning sounds and intentionally amorphous arrangements would seem to allow an infinite number of sonic combinations, it’s amazing how few artists are doing anything terribly interesting, content to just rely on tedium over innovation. Richard Youngs has never been one of them.

Though he hasn’t exactly christened himself a traditional singer/songwriter, Youngs’ last few albums have found him drifting into increasingly conventional creative waters, arriving at an odd halfway point between the warmly embracing British folk of Nic Jones, the hypnotic drone of the most minimalist country-blues artists, and the experimental guitar work of the late John Fahey. Most impressively, Youngs was able to move his music closer to standard songcraft without making concessions to commerciality, retaining the hallmarks of his work in expansively mesmerizing arrangements and succinctly evocative lyricism that seemed caught between new-age earth worship and deconstructed folk narrative. To that extent, he never completely abandoned the most challenging elements of his early work, still stretching arrangements out long enough that their sheer repetition made the songs take on a definitively surreal quality and keeping his verse so nondirective that listeners could read into it just about whatever they wish. In short, Youngs seemed to be heading toward some sort of reconciliation of both sides of his music, finding the perfect resolution of his creative dialectic. River Through Howling Sky seems to be an attempt to provide that resolution.

Immediately, “Fountain of Light” is a different kind of beast than anything we’ve heard on the last couple of Youngs albums. With caterwauling electric guitar notes pinging and snapping over randomly popping percussion and what sounds like the jangling of wind chimes, this is Young deconstructing and rebuilding himself moment by moment. As such, the guitarwork is free form and meandering, with tortured leads moaning and squealing in a bizarre call-and-response with his worshipfully chant-like vocals. The following “Blossom” introduces a little acoustic guitar bedding, with the melody developing a little (but not much) past the few notes of the previous track. Still, despite the folkish, vaguely pretty melody, the electric guitar still snaps and bleats around the far-off, amorphous guitar figure.

“Sky is Upon You,” while the shortest track on the album at only four minutes, ends up presenting the most textural variety, with droning guitar feedback and crystalline synth joining streaking beams of electric guitar to create a soothingly surreal backdrop. Still, the track almost seems insubstantial in comparison to what follows, the whopping 24-minute “Red Cloud Singular,” a slowly awakening mélange of serene acoustic guitar, electronic drones, and far-off wind chime ring. “I see the clouds / I see where they go / and I feel so young” he sings with an almost unsettling conviction, as if he’s just discovering his humanity. No doubt, this is the kind of aesthetic that the Microphones’ Phil Elvrum could be heading in his nature worship and sonic sculpting, as Youngs finds that surreally intimate place where the tangibly ethereal sonic palette perfectly matches the existential nature of the writing in creating a unified expression.

In the end, while it ranks as neither a departure nor a return to form, Richard Youngs has undoubtedly created a work that stands as a compelling testament to his ability to even further reduce and realign the constituent elements of his work. Ruminative, meditative, excessive, and downright indulgent in parts, this is an album that will challenge many, confound some, and delight those who never wanted him to venture into more accessible artistic areas in the first place. Still, what remains constant throughout his work is his pronounced ability to put a human face on his experimentation, casting himself as the vulnerable and intensely human figure in the middle of his sonic constructions. That remains his greatest strength and the defining element of River Through Howling Sky , making the esoteric and repetitive excesses of his work far more compelling and giving him a decided edge over the ranks of avant-garde also-rans.