Perfect Sound Forever


photo Peter J. Kierzkowski, © 2008

by Jeffrey Thiessen
(February 2015)

"There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves..."

A bit of background is necessary for anyone coming to William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops for the first time. "Having unearthed in 2001 a set of analog tape loops from his archives (produced in 1982, the tapes had lain undisturbed in Tupperware containers for close to two decades), Basinski discovered that while playing them, the tapes were, in a sense, dying because the magnetic material containing the sounds was flaking off during playback (to preserve what he was hearing, he recorded the sounds onto CDs as they played) and turning the music to dust. Then, on September 11th, Basinski witnessed the morning's events from his roof in Brooklyn, a mile away from the World Trade Center, and proceeded to watch the fires burn into the night with The The Disintegration Loops playing in the background, the scene in front of him perhaps already forming itself in his thoughts as an inextricable part of the work" (from Temporary Residence, the label that re-released William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops in 2012).

An interesting study emerged several years following the events of 9/11. After examining large portions of the American population in the subsequent years after that fateful day, the levels of depression in the country were at an all-time low. This bewildered many people at first, but if you think about it logically, it makes perfect sense. After that day, it seemed many people took their own internal depression, their own problems or anxiety that plague them on a day-to-day level, and attached it to the killings of 9/11. No longer was their sadness confined to a micro level, it got shifted to a macro one for a unified topic that everyone seemed solidified on. Furthermore it allowed people to direct their anger to a vague, faceless concept - again distracting themselves from personal anger issues and again bonding over a collective hatred. All of which oddly, made them more happy as a nation.

Shift to the current, where there hasn't been a savage attack even remotely similar to 9/11 since then, and it seems people are sadder than ever in that country. Social theorists agree it mostly comes down to the growing class divide and increasing emphasis on computer based friendships- ones that exist on an artificial level but defined on a substantial one, a contradiction that for the most part leaves people confused and lonely, even if they don't know it. Just like the country thought they were more sorrowful than ever after 9/11, but it was quite the opposite.

William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops seems to serve as a 9/11 relic, based on the circumstances under which it was created. While I understand this, and am not here to try and tell people how it should be defined in a cultural context, to me it serves more as a bridge between the paranoid solidarity of the 9/11 years and the glitched out, techno bubble we all live in today. The scope of this music is enormous, seemingly stretching timeless in nature, but the ambient drone of this music seems to instill an importance in all things, large and small.

To backtrack a little, as you can see from the description above, this is music that literally falls apart as it was being recorded. As he would put the old loops in the recorder, the magnetized metal would peel away as it was being transferred to the digital recorder. This means the only way this beautiful masterpiece could be created was through destruction.

Now, a lot of reviewers have probably correctly concluded this means the entire box set of music is representative of death. Just as life crumbles away day-by-day, these loops wither right along with it. This interpretation makes sense. But that seems too simplified for me.

The Disintegration Loops is the one album I feel that I will never really understand, never fully grasp, always perpetually failing to suitably articulate what it actually means to me, what it should mean to you. The relentless commitment to the damaged droning on this album has left us with no choice but to conclude that Basinski has accepted what his homeland has become, and a sincere fear of what it was. The beauty here is impossible to truly articulate - the tone is far from alluring and doesn't make it easy for people to come along. Oddly enough despite the painful beauty here, it still creates a "you're with us or against us" mentality that becomes far easier to appreciate once you begin to understand the stubborn fragility of it all. Nothing about it is militaristic but it's impossible to ignore how much it will mean for many, how little it will for some, and how infinitely terribly you feel for those.

The sound here is impossible to accurately describe. It's ambient in nature for sure but stretches far beyond that, far beyond what we generally expect from any set of music. Our fears, our hopes, our edges of imagination, our pursuit into the twilight... all get reshuffled into something more tangible. Something that allows us to gaze at the line of the horizon and wonder where in the landscape our ascent lies, if at all. It's a valid question but likely quite ignored. The Disintegration Loops doesn't really allow us to avoid the validity of it, instead insists we find a way to incorporate simplicity without nostalgia or irrational visions of future.

This brings up just how ballsy this album is. There is sophistication but it's gut sophistication. Each track seethes with a silent scream of urgency, but never really on behalf of the music, instead quite nicely places the burden of this on the listener. Maybe it comes down to this... The Disintegration Loops is fueled by a brave willingness to see the past for what it happens to be for most of us, and that's a decaying, remnant piece of a life we store in an untouchable prism that only we see this way. More than anything perhaps, it serves as a reminder that things just fall apart more than they stay held together.

There is no way to write about an album like this other than desperately trying to explain how it makes me feel when I gaze into the endless sky. It needs to be listened to alone. It also requires you to be in a position to stare into something that seemingly has no end - no houses, no roads, just land.

I've been a music journalist for almost 7 years now. Everything I've written about has been easy to break down in one way or another. I've even grown good at it, every album I've listened to can be easily summarized, and in a way that's engaging to you too. Disintigration Loops was was the exception and that's likely because it's the most powerful album I've ever written about. Listen to it because you will love it - buy it because someday you will need it.

The Disintegration Loops is certainly relaxing - I walk my dog every day to it. But I feel there is something more to it than just simple relaxation. These days pain is compartmentalized. Confusion is rationalized and anger is, whatever. Nearly every new act is just trying to infuse new juice into old genres. I'm not trying to say this album is beyond everything you know and you owe it to your consciousness to hear it. I'm just saying it's a picture of slow deaths - something we all know about, but don't really talk about. The Disintegration Loops is an open mirror. Seems weird to think it was the wheelbarrows the whole time. But also kind of makes sense.

Also see our 2023 article on The Disintegration Loops

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER