“On his third album for the label, Wes Willenbring’s classic melancholy breaks no new ground but shows off an admirably stark personal vision and straightforward, coherent execution. The electric guitar is his weapon of preference though once, an acoustic ditto adds something of an Iberian flavour to otherwise uncharted terrain. ”Dreams and Schemes” is a saw-toothed fog, a trembling drone. “Scene Missing” is an attractive nothingness determined to achieve a state of enrapt somethingness. Pulsars travel through a rust belt on “Consequences of Recklessness,” corroding their bright, elongated rays. The longest piece is the shortest on ideas; at fifteen minutes, “Quaaludes” takes ages to get going, four notes banged out of the guitar which lead up to nothing much more than an empty, gaping hole in which to echo. Not that it isn´t pleasant, probably much more so if you are comfortably numb while listening, but it lacks the heft of all the other, much shorter tracks, which Willenbring endows with so much moxie. He closes with a gentle piano farewell.”
Wes Willenbring Reviews
I don’t personally know Wes Willenbring, but something tells me he’s not very optimistic. His latest release, Weapons Reference Manual, gives off the vibe of something once menacing that time has turned sad, like a rusted scrap of Soviet-era metal. Even the vaguely flamenco-esque guitar that opens “People Disappear Every Day” is subsumed by creeping drones of unrelenting static. There’s a strange comfort to the resignation this music implies, a familiarity with the Pyrrhic spoils of modern warfare that depresses and troubles the listener in its own right. Think Neo giving a sign of relief as he watches The Matrix be switched back on. It’s defeatist and realistic, at once accepting and mournful of death and other tragedies. This might explain the rather bleak track titles; in addition to the aforementioned “People Disappear Every Day,” we’re treated to such delights as “Consequences of Recklessness,” “The Worst Part of You is the Best Thing You Have,” and disquieting final track “Ashes.” There is no life after death, Willenbring seems to posit; our modern tools of oppression and combat (the titular “weapons,” I presume) have made sure of that. The question then becomes: how much life do we really get to experience *before* death?
To the San Francisco-based artist’s credit, Weapons Reference Manual is not a painfully harsh or even jarring piece of work. Its noisy drones seem to be following some long-established ritual and thus don’t feel the need to jolt the listener into submission. Case in point: that flamenco guitar returns on “Consequences of Recklessness,” using the song’s entire three and a half minutes to teeter on the edge of some great, implacable anxiety. This time around, it survives the invading drones for most of the song; in the end, however, it succumbs to an assaulting wall of feedback. Willenbring’s ability to weave such narratives into the often monolithic tapestry of drone music is what makes Weapons such a special release. This is not life-affirming work, but it feels necessary all the same. This is life-reflecting work, and the images it conjures are of our own creation.
Presented in a dark industrial grey cover, Weapons Reference Manual, Wes Willenbring’s third recording for Hidden Shoal, arrives with a clear sense of foreboding, a mood reinforced on aural grounds by the oily pool of black grime that floods its guitar-fueled dronescape “Dreams and Schemes.” It’s a provocative and challenging opener by the now-San Francisco-based Willenbring, a way of stating that anyone climbing aboard will do so on his terms and no one else’s. It’s a stance borne out of artistic conviction, however, not defiance or arrogance—the sound of Willenbring following his instincts where they naturally lead. It’s interesting to hear where his muse takes him on the seven-track, forty-minute outing: the epic, fifteen-minute meditation “Quaaludes,” for example, is powered by distortion-laden electric guitar playing of the kind we associate with Fear Falls Burning and thisquietarmy, while “Scene Missing” plunges us into a seven-minute black pit of vaporous soundscaping that invites comparison to Deathprod.
Light-dark conflict appears to be the album’s primary theme; it’s certainly one Willenbring returns to throughout. On a number of occasions, scattered moments of illumination arise, bringing with them some tentative glimmer of hope, until they’re slowly subsumed by darkness. Though the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar suggests “People Disappear Every Day” might offer some degree of peacefulness, it’s gradually overwhelmed by a swelling mass of granular fuzz that recasts the piece as a drone-like reprise of the opener. In similar manner, the jittery guitar figure that introduces “Consequences of Recklessness” is slowly buried under a growing field of metallic tones, while the pretty arpeggios with which “The Worst Part of You is the Best Thing You Have” begins gradually lose their definition. Arriving as they do after the amorphous sludge of “Quaaludes,” the piano chords of “Ashes” almost startle when they resonate so clearly. In toto, Weapons Reference Manual presents a grittier and rawer side of Willenbring than has been heard before, and the move isn’t unwelcome. His decision to offset the soothing sweetness so typical of of ambient music with the corrosive effects of effects-heavy guitarscaping proves to be an effective strategy on this latest chapter in his still-evolving story.
The black and gray cover of Wes Willenbring’s new album, predisposes us for an encounter with an artist whose uncompromising vision may become either overbearing or revealing of greater truths that can only be deciphered through music. Not any music can do that of course, as not everyone is willing to push the boundary of sound, or use the experience of living in a post-industrial world as a source of inspiration to make something truly original, but most importantly esoteric.
Willenbring with Weapons Reference Manual makes a convincing argument for the fact that the transition into a post-industrial world hasn’t transformed the essentials of the human condition, as the grayness that remains at the heart of human civilization is still the main factor that guides our every move. Experimenting with tones, drones, mechanic background noise, distorted drums and guitar, he builds dark atmospheres which embrace the listeners and present them with a sense of danger. His music evolves like a being born in the darkness, moving like dark clouds, preparing us for a storm that may or may not come, but will surely affect our vision of the world (whether it will be for the better or the worse, remains to be seen and depends on our perspective the same way the Mayan prophesies of an impending doom or the dawn of an era of enlightenment, are interpreted depending on what each one of us wants to believe).
Like a soundtrack to William Blake’s trip from normality to a fictional city named Machine at the end of the world in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Willenbring’s music tells us the story of a long train trip with no end in sight, the monotonous sound of the train’s engines becoming a part of life, in a way that we couldn’t have imagined before. While all that sounds depressing, it surely isn’t. The correct word is detached, as Willenbring has abandoned the emotional touches of his previous works, and seems to observe the story he’s writing from a distance.
His work is meticulous, serious, at times hypnotic, but also capable of keeping the listener wide awake. This isn’t an album about the world’s beauty, but about recklessness, people disappearing every day, and dreams that will never be realized. It’s a wake-up call and meditation music for those willing to deep deeper into the most uncomfortable thoughts of our collective consciousness.