Sontag Shogun: Tale
To a greater-than-average degree, Sontag Shogun's music reflects the tripartite structure of its membership, at least insofar as it's represented on the Brooklyn-based group's debut full-length Tale. At certain moments, the musical emphasis is on piano-based melody, thereby placing Ian Tempel's contributions at the forefront; elsewhere, field recordings dominate, a move that signifies a shift to Jesse Perlstein's contributions, while sounds associated with Jeremy Young's tapes and oscillators also sometimes become the focal point. Of course, the tracks aren't structured and arranged so crudely that the creator's respective contributions appear separately; instead, a fine-tuned degree of balance and integration is achieved between all of the sound elements, an outcome that clearly speaks to the circumspection of all involved.
Tale exemplifies a surprising amount of cohesiveness, given that its nine settings present so many different sides of the group (not only that, the album was recorded while the three members were living in separate cities—Perlstein in Busan and Seoul, Young in London, and Tempel in Brooklyn); one could conceivably find it jarring to hear the vocal-based song “Let the Flies In” immediately after the texture-heavy soundscape “Hungarian Wheat,” for instance. Of course, Sontag Shogun obviously recognizes that certain things can be done to ensure that stylistically contrasting pieces can be unified by having an element—a recurring piano pattern, for example—appear in more than one song, a move that automatically establishes a common thread. Even the track sequencing strengthens that unified impression, with the album homophonically framed by “Tale” and “Tail” and with “... And Here, at the Middle, We Listen to the Man Who Tunes Pianos” at the album's, yes, center. Furthermore, the very fact that the album is titled Tale implies the presence of a narrative trajectory that includes introduction, exposition, and resolution.
There's much to admire about Tale: the ease with which the material straddles melody-based songform and experimental soundscaping; the boost the material receives from guests such as Liam Singer and Cheryl Kingan, whose lead and background voices bring a marvelous lift to the ballad “Let the Flies In”; and the beauty of Tempel's piano playing (“The Musk Ox” a good example). And though it is the group's debut album, a considerable amount of groundwork was done in preparation for it, namely a pair of EPs issued in 2012 (Absent Warrior, Abandoned Battlefield) and 2013 (LTFI EP). Certainly the care with which the album has been crafted reflects the three years of work that were involved in its creation. If there's one thing about Tales that stands out more than any other, it's how remarkably poised its material is.
The opening title track acts as somewhat of a microcosm of the Sontag Shogun sound in the way it threads Tempel's elegant grand piano melodies in amongst a fuzzy mass of radiophonic textures, tape elements, and distorted voices. A number of the pieces that follow explore variations on the theme yet avoid repetition by integrating different source materials (NASA-like communications in “Orbit Insertion” versus the plunk of a piano tuner at the Southbank Centre and a recording of a trek through a Columbian jungle elsewhere). In the final analysis, the merging of classical piano playing with laptop-generated textures, field recordings, and tape materials makes for a thoroughly captivating sound that's Sontag Shogun's alone.