Sole Massif – Encircle – 5:4

Sole Massif - Encircle - 5:4

i’m bringing my annual January exploration of free music to a close with an album that, as happens every year, should have appeared in my Best Albums of 2022 but i ended up listening to it just too late. That being said, when i first spent time with Encircle by Lithuanian musician Sole Massif, in the final days of 2022, i made the mistake of listening through headphones: it sounded good enough, at times even quite impressive, but not necessarily outstanding. Revisiting it again in the last week or so, however, i’ve allowed it to speak properly through speakers, and the difference is absolutely extraordinary.

The album’s title suggests being surrounded, enclosed even, and that’s absolutely the impression created by the 10 tracks that make up Encircle. Furthermore many of the track titles reference industrial objects or processes, ideas that again make their presence felt in the music. One of the primary characteristics of Encircle is a startling level of intensity. This manifests in various ways, most obviously in the recurring sense that we’re caught in the midst of a debris-filled maelstrom, with massive collisions happening on all sides. Sole Massif likes to place these in the unnervingly close foreground, where the resulting assortment of accents, frictions and drones smash, scrape and bombard our eardrums. Opening track ‘Disintegrate’, as its name suggests, almost seems to be setting up the debris field, throwing sound objects together and observing the reverberant aftermaths of each forceful contact.

Yet it also reveals the music’s dual primary aspect: sustained tones that throughout Encircle act as both a foil and a counterweight to the percussive elements that threaten to pummel everything into oblivion. In ‘Disintegrate’ it’s a somewhat fuzzy, middlegrounded drone, one that appears to vanish two-thirds through but which we realise is still present at great depth below the track’s powerful conclusion. Pitch often coalesces into drone formations, though usually coloured or inflected by the surrounding mayhem, such as the razor-sharp tones that cut through the texture in ‘Frontline Replicant’ or the far-off tolling of detritus-encrusted bells at the close of ‘Tempered Glass Deploy’.

Perhaps the aspect of Encircle that i find most compelling is the deft balancing act between these sustained (usually pitched) elements and the enormous violence (both percussive and noise) of each track. It’s not remotely the kind of balance that one could plausibly call an ‘equilibrium’, as the volatility is such that at almost no point does the music sound stable. yet regarding the album as a whole, which of those two primary elements is ultimately the more pervasive, or has greater agency, or proves more compelling, is impossible to say.

Hearing such ferocious caprice play out is exhilarating and often completely overwhelming. This is reinforced by the highly tactile timbral quality of Sole Massif’s palette. Big abrasive splashes in ‘Precalibrated Dispersion’ sound as if we were being sprayed with acid; ‘Tempered Glass Deploy’ gives the impression of tangible materials being handled, occasionally discharging energy, streaming a jet of white-hot matter directly at us; ‘Pact of Multiplication’ combines pounding crunchy accents and squalling noise bursts in an almost absurdly ferocious display of playfulness.

However, these are consistently matched and militated against by the longer-term pitch elements which, in the closing tracks on the album, seem to have proved dominant. ‘Directional Enquiries’ features resonant chords trying to emerge through a gentle, dronal industrialscape, in a liminal music that suggests imminent explosions from implied internal power but which is somehow held in check, in the process projecting soft warmth. In ‘Glowing White Indicator’ the softness of the drone paradoxically turns out to prove resilient against a barrage of intense impacts and scratches, hovering behind and, towards the end, evaporating seemingly by choice. Closing track ‘Controlled Machinery Formation’ pushes this unbalanced balance to an extreme, pelting squelch and noise left and right, triggering huge accents that transform everything, yet despite the effervescence and instability of the soundworld, following a series of shimmering metallic ripples what transpires is radiance, floating chords that equal the entirety and the enormity of everything that’s their opposite, leading to a majestic climax of impure glory.

Encircle is available as a free download from the Sole Massif Bandcamp site.