That which passes, passes like clouds.— aphorism/song title/album title, Robert Fripp
This is music from a broken heart.
Abruptly faced with his estranged father’s terminal illness, Nosound maestro Giancarlo Erra poured his reactions into brooding electronic improvisations, recorded (for the most part) in real time in the studio. The result is his second solo album, Departure Tapes. Shorn of the classical elements of 2019’s Ends, it’s both raw and eerily majestic — an extended sonic contemplation of mortal life’s limits and the human struggle to accept them.
The opening “Dawn Tape” lays out Erra’s improvisational process — not far removed from Robert Fripp’s Soundscapes or Floating Points’ recent Promises. A mournful lo-fi piano loop (complete with the noise of the recorder switching on) gently creaks into motion. As it repeats over the course of six minutes, Erra stirs in a static mid-range drone, a slow synth line and a recessed bass riff, randomly generated rhythmic chords and a yearning treble melody. The elements accumulate, grind against each other, gradually dissipate like clouds in a troubled sky, with the drone outlasting even the piano loop. But that’s just the architecture: what you hear is the beginning of a new day, its beauty evident yet obscured for Erra by Philip Larkin’s “unresting death, a whole day nearer now.”
Every track on Departure Tapes opens out from its simple beginnings to something rich and deep, no matter its actual length. The tender harp of the miniature “Previous Tape” provides a lush bed for its heartfelt, hornlike melody over an airy, insistent electronic groove. “169th Tape” is a portrait of collisions and avoidances, as orchestral clusters (treated with random, noisy decay) sweep across the soundfield, holding on against midrange chords and an irregular, descending bass line that threaten to overwhelm it. And “Unwound Tape” sounds like its title, a hypnotic, slow-motion crescendo that has the feel of something feared yet inescapable.
All this builds to the title track, sixteen minutes of heartfelt brilliance. Working off a long, wordless vocal loop, Erra explores his previous strategies, draping the haunting melody with chords and a bass line — then reboots for an extended, lyrical piano solo (featured at the start of the YouTube edit). Flowing from folk lyricism into free-form, dissonant splashes, Erra dances, halts, regains momentum to climb through thickening, pulsing string clouds. Which is when the vocal line returns, triumphantly soaring atop the static gloom. It’s a rhapsodic moment, evoking Mahler in its depiction of both the angst involved in confronting death and the catharsis of acceptance. Which beautifully sets up the closing “A Blues for My Father,” a yearning requiem of glacially shifting melodies and timbres, somber but nonetheless at peace.
It’s that sense of closure, of coming to terms with what awaits us all, that Erra powerfully, beautifully depicts with Departure Tapes. Working from his grief for his father, he’s given us a gift; whatever we believe awaits beyond this life, one day we will pass from this world, like the clouds he’s so vividly drawn on for these improvisational sketches. Coming to terms with that raw fact can enable us — as it would seem to have enabled Giancarlo Erra — to treasure what we have (as well as what we’ve had) all the more.
— Rick Krueger