Switched On – A Winged Victory For The Sullen: The Undivided Five (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Undivided Five marks a key point in the album career of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. The duo, Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, already had impressive musical CVs before uniting as a group eight years ago, O’Halloran with his solo work and Wiltzie both in a solo capacity and as one half of acclaimed instrumental duo Stars Of The Lid.

Since their inception AWVFTS, as they can also be known, have grown a reputation for intense instrumental music and atmospheric live shows. Their late-night Prom with Nils Frahm in 2015 drew admiration, while their soundtrack work for Iris and God’s Own Country has shown their suitability for the big screen.

The Undivided Five, however, is their first ‘artist only’ album since the Atomos album of 2014, and marks the start of a new chapter at Ninja Tune. The number ‘five’ is significant – it represents a circle of five women of which a recently deceased friend was a member. It also resonates with the significance to the duo of their key musical interval, the perfect fifth.

What’s the music like?

Subtly powerful. From the very first strains of Our Lord Debussy it is clear this is an extremely meaningful album to the pair. One of its themes is different strains of ‘goodbye’ – Keep It Dark, Deutschland for O’Halloran’s time in Berlin, as he moves to Iceland – then Adios, Florida, which would appear to be more relevant to Wiltzie and his location in Brussels, then Aqualung, Motherfucker, a tribute to their recently passed close friend.

Loss is a factor in this music, the duo also unexpectedly losing a close friend in the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson last year. Perhaps because of this there is a barely concealed tension running through the music, which breaks cover at times but essentially powers the slow, strong and meaningful chord progressions.

The ability of the pair to make a great deal of substance from the most innocuous of musical cells is deeply impressive, and is very carefully thought through. Colour is very important to the music, but so is space, each track having presence in its outer frequencies but leaving plenty of space in the middle for the listener.

Our Lord Debussy is superb, growing slowly but surely from its elegant piano cell, the piano itself driving a chant-like piece of music as it mirrors the composer Debussy’s ability to replace melody with harmony. It is briefly reminiscent of some of the soundtrack work of Thomas Newman in its ability to slow time and space, creating a distinct sound world, but the development of the music is too individual for those comparisons to stay.

Two compositions stand out for their instrumental solos – The Slow Descent Has Begun, with a solemn violin solo, and Aqualung, Motherfucker, with a deeply poignant line for horn. This pair form the centrepiece of the album, with the following A Minor Fifth Is Made Of Phantoms offering a little resolve in its organ-like timbres.

The album’s stately progress continues with Adios, Florida, which falls over the edge in heartbreaking fashion at its end, and The Rhythm Of A Dividing Pair, a more consonant and peaceful work. Keep It Dark, Deutschland finds O’Halloran in consoling mood at the piano.

Does it all work?

Yes. This must have been a difficult album to make for O’Halloran and Wiltzie, but – as their band name implies – this is a band that galvanizes great strength from adversity. They do so here in music of rarefied atmosphere and latent power.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Undivided Five takes their output up a level, expanding its possibilities and giving notice that A Winged Victory For The Sullen are getting better and better. This is their most effective and meaningful album to date, but the signs are it won’t be long until they go even further and better.

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