By Amanda Nordqvist
Having already set himself up for quite the challenge in following up the gut-punch that was Human Values Disappear – his heart-wrenching, unbearably memorable album from last year – Spanish composer Pepo Galán decided not only to one-up himself, but to smash down the doors into yet another dimension of his own talent. Throughout his latest release, Strange Parentheses, Galán is challenging our expectations of ambient drone albums, seeming completely at ease in this newly unearthed space, as the listeners get to relish in the same tangible universe of emotion from before, with the added element of silky, delicate vocals.
After the introducing Harmony Fields Reverse, a bursting cascade of sound throwing me every which way, the gently familiar S A M O A follows, instantly establishing itself as one of the strongest points of the album with its soft sense of home. Pleasantly mixed with the warmth and care of the piano (by Sergio Díaz de Rojas), Sita Ostheimer sings with a voice like Katie Melua, so close and surrounding, I feel as though it comes from within. There’s a paradoxically grounded airiness to the whole track, painting the music a lofty, smooth golden, waving like a silken sheet in the wind. The track is well-crafted and perfectly executed, building to a non-imposing grandiosity that leaves me humbled, and aching for more.
The album takes a much colder, more industrial turn with the urban soundscape of Dead Fish On The Shore, with the sound of something shattering in slow motion, the incessant fluttering of a helicopter, much too close above you, a deafening force. The theme continues with In A Straight Line; a surreptitious clamor, at first glance just a noisy street, but I feel myself straining to hear something specific through the noise, knowing there’s something there I need, no, must understand. I feel it slip away from my grasp as the noise is slowly canceled out, replaced by a watery tumult, and I am forced to let it go – an easy feat, as the glittering sea engulfs me, allowing me only glances of the city, suddenly so very far away.
The title track ropes me into a surreal landscape, with gravelly noises, grit and aggression; I see something fighting to get out – I see movements as if from within a skintight tomb, struggling to break free. Not human, not inhuman, something in between. The intensity makes me want to avert my eyes but I fight the urge – there is something raw in the insanity, something calm in the chaos, and I need to absorb it all. I get my reward as the struggle turns inwards and a growth takes its place, as the ringing intensifies subtly, climbing higher and higher, and when it finds a delicately hopeful tune it sighs deeply and retreats back into a soft slumber.
The second half of the album allows for even more variation in sound and texture, with the naked honesty of Barco Amor (Naufragio) and Bleeding Eyes, and two tracks that were both written in 2015: High Seas Tempest offering a more aggressive approach with heavier influences and bigger turns and curves; it’s one of the more extravagant tracks with a delicately vintage foundation made modern with the droning and the experimentation with (un)natural sounds. Respectively, Almost Alone In This Life reminds me most of Galán’s previous flagship album, perhaps mostly because of its thought provoking title and truly lonesome sound.
Ending with U Broke Me, an intense urgency in the airy, pained vocals surrounded by ripples and whirring, Galán shows once more of his ability to explore his own sound without painting too much outside the lines – the album never loses its direction but still offers a wide range of emotion and nuance. I can’t say I’m surprised the album was so immensely enjoyable, but I’m delighted to say that this latest release can truly stand proud next to its predecessor.