Christopher Bissonnette’s first album for Kranky in seven years is fairly different from the more patient, pastoral ambient terrain he’s traversed on past releases. InsteadEssays in Idleness finds Bissonnette limiting his explorations to a single homemade modular synthesizer, which at first seemed slightly disappointing of a prospect to me. Given that modular synthesis is so en vogue at the moment as a sort of reaction against completely software-based electronic music, I don’t know that it’s as compelling or daring a move to make as it may have seemed a few years earlier for some of his peers. But listening to the album, my reservations about Bissonnette joining the modular synthesis bandwagon are for naught; while it’s a different animal from his previous repertoire, I find most of the album to be quite good.
There are times when Bissonnette employs a rather typical octave toggle to his monophonic leads, abruptly toggling from one octave to the next as notes cycle through. It’s the sort of thing that seems like modular synthesis 101, recalling the monophonic Moog sounds of Boards of Canada and conjuring up somewhat cliched images of sun-faded 70s camcorder footage. But Bissonnette only occasionally indulges such sounds here, instead often lingering in a more nebulous field of overtones and oscillating drones. The closest comparison I can draw is some of the recent synth output of M. Geddes Gengras, because both composers seem to be pulling inspiration from the same lonely and introverted places.
The delayed, sprinkling octave shifts of “A Deplorable Corruption” and “Entanglements” show off Bissonnette’s love of the sometimes arbitrary and abrupt changes in sound attributed to the nature of the synth. But it’s the lead track, “Greenish In Its Light,” that is such a clear standout to me — it’s fragile and luminous, the visual of refracted light in such an intuitive and instinctive way.