Twenty-three minutes into Carmen Villain’s fourth album, at the start of the penultimate track, we hear something we’ve never heard before from the Mexican-Norwegian artist: the dynamic beat of the techno dub. Even for listeners who have kept pace with his gradual transformation from independent singer-songwriter to jazz-inspired ambient musician, it might come as a surprise. But it confirms how far Villain has come since the fuzzbox scratches and narcotic vocals of his 2013 debut, Sleeper. On two subsequent albums and two more EPs between 2017 and last year, she put down her mic and electric guitar and dug deep into the creases of synthesizers, drum machines, flute and electronic tools. The turning point of this metamorphosis was its release in 2020 Affection in times of crisis, whose swollen, rhythmless shapes mirrored the marble outlines – and 23-second reverberation – of the mausoleum where she recorded it. But even as her music grew more abstract, she simultaneously hinted at alternative paths she might take, commissioning gently pulsing remixes from leftist electronic musicians like DJ Python, Parris and Huerco S. Their rhythmic energies echo on “Subtle Bodies,” a highlight of his most dynamic and unpredictable album to date.
From a carefully selected set of gently rounded shapes and muted tonal choices, Villain vies for a surprisingly varied selection of instrumental tracks that flow together like the interconnected parts of a suite. The seven songs are shot through with an abiding sense of mystery. When there are rhythms, they sound like an object dragged through the woods by an animal. His imaginary landscapes are illuminated with a muted glow, like the mist that burns the fields at dawn. Aside from the occasional telltale electronic treatment, much of the album’s palette seems to come from acoustic sources, though it’s often impossible to identify the source of any given sound. In the brief “Liminal Space”, an unsteady rhythm can be flat stones slamming together or hard footsteps echoing in a dry river bed.
Like a creation story, Only love from now on begins with the breath: the wind instruments provide its essence and define its form. In the opening “Gestures,” Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s horn passes through an electronic harmonizer, reminiscent of Jon Hassell’s eerie prismatic sweeps. To a ritual pulsation of gong sounds and wooden percussion, Henriksen plays an eloquent improvised lead, while in the background, Villain spreads his echoes across the stereo field – a richly enveloping mix of sounds that sounds less like a song than a four-dimensional environment that extends around you. In “Portals”, harmonized and layered clarinets float above a solitary percussion loop reminiscent of Seefeel Relief. And in the eight-minute title track, flautist Johanna Scheie Orellana, a frequent Villain collaborator, draws languid lines over a floating background of brilliant chords, oscillating between soft consonance and sibilant dissonance. His timbre often has a sibilant tone that emphasizes the physicality of breath filling his instrument.