Hypnotising, confounding, beautiful: Chubby Wolf – Ornitheology

On 8 July—the anniversary of Danielle Baquet-Long’s death—in a rather lovely coincidence, her first posthumous release, Ornitheology, landed on my doormat • That was the standard edition, released in a typically short run of 125 copies by Digitalis—by now, of course, very sold out • Yesterday, the special edition arrived, in an even shorter run of just 21 copies, the cassette housed in a black wallet, replete with pink bow fixed to the front, all made from rather-curious-to-hold-but-very-striking-to-behold latex; designed by fashion’s latex goddess Sophie Richardoz, it gives the release an exotic, sensuous & highly tactile quality • Despite their resurgence in recent times, cassette releases have a tendency to appear less substantial than those on other media, in part due to the (usually) shorter durations they occupy • But Ornitheology is a different entity, its brace of tracks amounting to over 90 minutes of music, a demonstrative statement of intent as well as an article of faith in the cassette medium •

For listeners accustomed to the endlessly new & diverse but ever unified output from Celer, it can feel somewhat difficult to extricate Baquet-Long’s parallel Chubby Wolf project • A simplistic view would be to regard it as a solo extension of Celer’s work—after all, her material obviously carries many of the hallmarks of the established Celer sound • But on both her previous releases—the EP Meandering Pupa & album L’Histoire—a notably different sound, i feel, emerges; one that might be described as more focussed & intense, more austere, & certainly more demanding (which is not to suggest Celer’s music lacks these qualities; far from it) • Indeed, both these releases, with their firm sense of patience & restraint, & the resultant cool, aloof textures, are in fact a world away from most Celer, really akin only to their great anomaly, Sieline • Baquet-Long is clearly an independent force to be reckoned with on her own terms •
Ornitheology, however, is the first Chubby Wolf release to acknowledge & assimilate the warmer musical climes inhabited by Celer; it’s fitting, therefore, that the work is dedicated to husband Will • The latter track, “Phantasmagoria Of Nothingness (Prey To Our Emotions)”, is something of a hybrid; the austerity remains in the narrow dynamic range & minimal activity—exhibited most emphatically in the droning pitch (C) that sits in the foreground for much of the track’s duration • However, this note is drenched in a gentle, drifting fog that prevents it from becoming irritatingly persistent, muting it & causing the surface to ripple & undulate • The effect is disconcerting: too warm to be ascetic, too cool to be ecstatic; the music hypnotises, confounding attempts to ‘place’ it, & the more i’ve listened to it, the more i’ve realised one needs to embrace the uncertainty • i’ll admit i was initially not so keen on this track, but it’s slowly (& completely) won me over, in no small part due to its reluctance to do precisely that •

On the other hand, the first track, “On Burnt, Gauzed Wings”, consciously allows in far greater warmth • At first listen, little is that different: narrow dynamics (if anything, narrower than its successor), slow movement, no extremes (high/low frequencies are entirely absent), but there’s an abundance of richness allowed to flourish here that is nothing short of breathtaking • It’s a richness that manifests itself strongest in a powerful shifting tide of harmonies that reverberate out & around like distant musicians slowly improvising in a vast cathedral • But ultimately, hyperbole & metaphors seem rather redundant in the face of music that’s simply as beautiful as this track is; of course, a great deal of the material issued by Dani & Will could be described in that way, but this really is something else • Anyone familiar with Celer’s 2008 album I Love You So Much I Can’t Even Title This (The Light That Never Goes Out Went Out) will know what i mean about intense beauty; “On Burnt, Gauzed Wings” really is as good as that •

Only a few weeks ago, i was lamenting the fact that, having listened to very many 2010 releases, not one of them had struck me as an unblemished 5-star candidate • Finally, that lament is over; except to say, of course, that there was an unavoidable sadness in listening to such a gorgeous album from one no longer with us • But Danielle Baquet-Long’s music ultimately conveys such a deep-seated elation that tears—even tears of joy—evaporate in its wake • This is a rare, marvellous album, one of the best from one of the best •

5:4 rating: 5/5