This album’s from nowhere, but it synthesises everything. Philip Woodbury is one guy, hype-free, from Austin, Texas, very clearly a fan of music, and of the ‘alt’-sphere in general. “One of us”, I really, really hesitate to say but will say anyway. One of us. So he absorbs it all, the iPod-enabled volumes of music. And he churns it out in new, various ways. Northward is an explosion of distorted drums, and Denton Desert Island is the opposite, reflective and soft, but the thoughts are clear in both. This is not obscure music. It’s serious, self-assured, shooting for a place in the tapestry that its provenance (home-recording, usual story) might not automatically allow it. The people it borrows from – the studied melancholy of Stephin Merritt, or the masterful instrumentation of Kevin Barnes – are the geniuses of the scene. Time might prove Philip Woodbury to be in that company, but whether it does or doesn’t, There Exists An Abstraction Ladder feels like an arrival of something serious.
There is music that works on a literal level, that holds you by the shoulders and tells you to your face what it wants to say. After all, everyone relates to a human voice, whether they can understand the story being told or they just appreciate the passion and the melody.
But somewhere below that verbal, literal level, there is music that works in a different way. Music that doesn’t conjure up images of your last girlfriend so much as it reminds you of the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you broke up. It’s ambient music, music that says nothing but somehow means everything. That’s what Hunter-Gatherer does. He once claimed it to be his ultimate ambition “to make a piece of music that could make someone cry.”
That sounds likes a grisly aim for a musician, but it is the dark quality that makes it such a captivating album to listen to. “Left For Dead” sounds like a thunderstorm on a cheap conservatory roof, ominous and all too conscious of the futility of human artifice. “Memory Pillow” is zoned-out, anhedonic half-sleep. The highlight, “The Salivation Army” has the added benefit of being up-tempo enough to sustain some existential techno dancing, if you have imagination enough to consider what that would entail.
At fifteen songs, the album runs the risk of being too long to maintain attention, but the subtle changes in mood stave off any chance of the tracks blending into each other. The only danger, really, is that, listening late at night on headphones as the music nigh demands, you would fall asleep and suddenly find yourself seeing the nightmare tones come to life.