Thomas Meluch and Rafael Anton Irisarri already have pretty good things going with their main musical endeavors – the gauzy ambient folk of Benoît Pioulard, and the sometimes techno-baiting, amorphous ambient shapes of The Sight Below. Despite differences in approach, both exude a certain mood that end users could lump together – a shared likelihood of being listened to under the same lonesomely overcast and introspective conditions. Their debut album as a duo, the self-titled Orcas, stays in the same zone, but edges closer to the sublime and harrowing atmospheres more associated with Irisarri.
The album itself follows the structure of past Pioulard albums, with a predominance of concrete pieces including lyrics separated and balanced by droning abstract pieces. However, without any sign of the tighter pop structures this back and forth quality is less pronounced. From front to back, the album starts off more rickety and smooths out to a lush ending. “Pallor Cedes” and “Arrow Drawn” establish a brooding mood, the former a slow melange of organic hiccups centered around “coming up for air” and preparing for a dark twilight, and the latter a strummy piano-led rumination on identity and defensiveness focused on the refrain “I never asked about your real name” – a mirror inside a mirror considering both men record under pseudonyms. The slow pace established at the beginning of Orcas never picks up, but the next track “Standard Error” breaks the sullen mood momentarily with a gorgeous slab of Basinskian eargoo consisting of a slowed orchestra loop and swelling voices. Through these first three pieces, it becomes obvious that these personalities work well together and are capable of producing music with a wide-ranging scope. Unlike the recent Mirrorring project consisting of Grouper and Tiny Vipers – where two more or less foreground personalities shared the stage – Orcas sees Irisarri staying back and fussing over details in sound and pace while Meluch steps up to act as the project’s ego. His voice has never been so out front in the mix, and it proves even more striking when accompanied so minimally.
A sense of purgatory pervades the album. With its minimal piano and soft loops, “Carrion” sounds like a last will pondered over in a lowly lit hospital room, respirator and heart monitor slowly marking off the moments. On “Until Then” Meluch waxes philosophical about possession and property in a simple way that calls out the 1%, concluding in the end that “none of us have anything.” “You better bring your torch/This soiree’s going to be dark” he drawls on “Pallor Cedes.” The less wordy songs provide relief and some uplift near the end where Meluch states that “the harmony is growing clearer and more consonant”, even while recognizing that “the soot we leave behind is layering on permanently.” All in all, Meluch’s lyrics are easier to follow – though some phrases take more concentration than others – making the experience a slow but savory reveal.
Orca whales communicate underwater with clicks and pulses, and this description is also apt of Orcas the musical group, who travel with grace amid clicky beats, loops, pulses, and tidal drones. Orcas have become endangered in these guys’ home turf of the Pacific Northwest from habitat destruction, and it’s easy to see the connection between the shell-shocked sadness of that situation and the shell-shocked sadness of the world filtered through the music of Orcas, where – due to the psychological vagaries of individuals – a new Dark Age is always lurking right around the corner.