Graded on a Curve: Wanderwelle,
Black Clouds Above
the Bows

Based in Amsterdam and active since the middle of last decade, Wanderwelle is the ambient duo of Phil van Dulm and Alexander Bartels, with Black Clouds Above the Bows their latest full-length release and the first in a trilogy that’s focused on the climate crisis and its detrimental effects on global coastal regions. Crucial to the recording’s final form are antique cavalry trumpets, their natural sound digitally altered to gripping and suitably dark effect. Growing in power as the eight pieces unwind through rigorous invention and inspired purpose, the CD is out now through Important Records, who will be releasing the second part of the trilogy, All Hands Bury the Cliffs at Sea, on vinyl later this year.

Wanderwelle’s stylistic beginnings have been described as dub techno-like, a statement I currently take (and share here) on faith, as Black Clouds Above the Bows serves as my introduction to the duo’s work. And depending on how they’re counted, their latest effort is either their fourth or fifth full-length. The outlier seems to be 2019’s Victory Over the Sun, a collaboration with the Swedish duo Bandhagens Musikförening.

Prior to Victory Over the Sun, Wanderwelle released two records on the Silent Season label, 2017’s Lost In a Sea of Trees, and the next year, Gathering of the Ancient Spirits. And in 2020, A State of Decrepitude came out on the “ambient adjacent” imprint A Strangely Isolated Place. That leads right to the doorstep of Black Clouds Above the Bows, an ambient recording of uncommon, if perhaps unsurprising urgency, given the subject matter that spurred the music’s reality.

On one hand, the very properties that define the ambient genre manage to liberate this recording’s direct thematic concerns from any dangers of the didactic or the sloganeering. Anybody familiar with hardcore punk and its assorted stylistic offspring will understand of what I speak. But on the other (cynical) hand, it could be quite easy to assemble a random batch of ambient pieces and then just proclaim that they are about climate change.

Listening to Black Clouds Above the Bows, it becomes easy to take Wanderwelle at their word, partly due to the aforementioned urgency, but also through how the record was built, specifically in using instruments once employed to deliver warnings and calls for action on battlefields for similar purposes in relation to our current climate crisis.

This calvary trumpet observation is laid out in the record’s press kit, so it’s no great revelation on my part, but it’s still a salient point worthy of repeating, particularly as Wanderwelle are just as aptly described as an electroacoustic collective as they are an ambient one. To elaborate, they manipulate the sounds of acoustic instruments—here, those trumpets, by electronic means into often radically different sonic textures.

A State of Decrepitude has been described as the band’s first electroacoustic recording, indicating that the shift from those supposed dub-techno origins has been underway for a while, a fact that’s abundantly evident in the new record’s assured, even disciplined execution. Furthermore, Black Clouds Above the Bows is a tidy album at 35 minutes and change.

While this record has been related as wielding an increasingly noisy progression, I will offer that it’s pretty far from some of the brutal racket I’ve encountered in the contemporary underground across the last few decades. And at least on this set, Wanderwelle’s sound is ultimately a human one. At times, those trumpets are even recognizable as trumpets, though it’s not like anybody’s blowing reveille (thank god).

Although powerful, Black Clouds Above the Bows still registers as somewhat incomplete, likely in part due to its length, but surely more so because it is the first installment of a trilogy. This is not a fault in this case but a facet of the endeavor, as Wanderwelle engages with a topic of utmost seriousness in a manner that formulates neither exhaustion nor despair (or to get back the didactic, disappointment or boredom) but instead, heightened awareness and a desire to remain engaged. It is a wildly successful release in both form and content.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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