Aidan Baker – Lost in the Rat Maze

by 5:4

There will be some who regard Aidan Baker as not just an important part of post-rock, ambient doom music, but as a sine qua non of that scene, perhaps even the benchmark by which its practitioners should be measured and judged. Such is his perceived importance to many, and the sheer scale of his output (Discogs lists no fewer than 93 solo releases, including this one) makes for an intimidating testament to the breadth and abundance of his creative imagination. Size isn’t everything, of course, and it often follows that, the more prolific the artist, the more inconsistent is the quality of their work. Furthermore, it’s interesting how the overwhelming amount of music Baker has created through the last decade serves as both an aid and a hindrance when approaching new releases – we know, broadly speaking, what to expect; equally, we never quite know what we’re going to hear. There are few artists about which that could be said; Aidan Baker’s work is nothing if not enigmatic.

The opening sounds of Lost in the Rat Maze certainly imply something unexpected is afoot. Piano notes appear from within a reverb soup, joined hesitatingly by a distant string presence, revealing itself slowly. The track, ‘Prelude’, is all patience, Baker allowing these two elements to hover, in no hurry to push them on. A third element – more rhythmic but somehow less tangible – is introduced, and now things develop; the strings evolve more forceful harmonics, and the elements swell together. Towards its close, Baker abruptly cancels them all, and it’s their echoes that segue into the following, title track.

It’s becoming clear that this is music going somewhere, Baker’s taking us on a journey, and it’s one he’s more than prepared to take his time over. Now we hear the first identifiable material from the guitar (deep bass notes), and there are soft hints of a voice. In a similar way to before, a rhythmic element, this time a quiet hi-hat, starts something, and the voice, caught at the limits of audibility, acquires some substance. Another rhythm marks its own pattern at the fringes, suggesting a tempo that may or may not be there, and, having set things in motion, Baker now allows them to drift once again; with the nebulosity of a cloud and the intricacy of an isorhythm, the effect is superbly hypnotic.

Another abrupt cancellation triggers the third track, and by now the excitement at being taken on such an intriguing, captivating journey is considerable. ‘Fanciful Flights’ brings the album’s first demonstrative gestures: a more emphatic sense of pulse, the occasional beats become regular, and there’s even the makings of a bassline. It’s a thrilling next step in what’s starting to feel like a real sonic odyssey, Baker keeping the tension strong, retaining the sense that we have somewhere else, somewhere greater, left to go…

The trouble is, this is where things come undone. From the fourth track onwards, Baker’s intensity starts to fizzle. The material, rather than seeming to pull us on, begins to lose coherence. Far from being the logical next step, ‘I Can’t Stand’ is only superficially different from what came before, and by ‘Cut Stars’, there’s a real sense that the game is up; this music is going precisely nowhere. New (pointless) rhythms appear, one drone is replaced with another, there are further vocal whisperings just beyond the cusp of intelligibility.

Baker’s stylistic manner is as engaging as ever; this is what we might call a ‘viscous’ music, the material sounding as though it’s been caught in amber that hasn’t yet solidified, and that aspect is undeniably impressive. But as the album unfolds, it proves itself to be a structural and compositional disaster, sudden changes confusing things, lending subsequent tracks a clearly unintended incongruity. By ‘Breakbeat’, even the music’s discrete elements seem to have stopped having anything to do with each other, merely sounding simultaneously rather than interacting or even blending. And the less said about ‘Corridors of Funk’ the better; the album’s longest track is also its most ultra-repetitive and self-indulgent; there’s no funk here, and its corridors are very, very long.

One’s tempted to reach to the album’s title as an explanation for the difficulties presented within its component tracks. Certainly, there’s a lot of treading over ground already covered (as one might expect from a maze), but if anything’s lost here, it seems to be none other than Aidan Baker himself. Lost in the Rat Maze sets up expectations and then, in the most passive, almost apathetic way imaginable, dashes them. It’s a shame to witness Aidan Baker’s remarkable ability to weave the most fascinating, absorbing soundscapes fail him. The conclusion, ‘Feathery Fingers’, does at least present itself as a noble valediction, but it can’t prevent one wishing Baker had lived up to the high hopes the album’s earliest tracks inspired.

(This article was originally published on Fluid Radio.)

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