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I haven't been as challenged, confounded, and ultimately rewarded by a record as Asva's Presences of Absences since I first heard Voivod. Asva's career trajectory from doom supergroup to bandleader Stuart Dahlquist's (ex-Burning Witch) own avant-garde chamber ensemble has been a fairly logical one, gradually substituting metallic textures and unison pummel with organ drones and dissonance.
On first listen, I felt they'd jumped the shark this time; 2008's What You Don't Know Is Frontier balanced both ends of their spectrum perfectly, and it remains my favorite Asva album. But while that album's hooky immediacy is the better fuck, Presences of Absences is so revealing and intimate, it might be the one to settle down with. That meditative slow burn that's always been in Asva's arsenal takes the foreground here, and it's not for lack of compositional insight. There's an almost grievous, wake-like quality to these nigh-eternal drones. When they explode, it's thoroughly shocking, like a deathbed confessional after years of sub-surface boiling. The whole album has a powerful narrative feel and comes across so assuredly that even when I doubted it, I knew I had to keep listening. I'm so glad I did. This is no slight release, and fans of long-form, compositionally dense, yet visceral music will be stunned by the depths this record suggests.
Presences of Absences was such a departure from my expectations, I sought out Mr. Dahlquist for some more insight and context on what I was hearing.
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My number one question upon hearing Presence of Absences: who is in Asva now?
Toby Driver sings and plays guitar, Greg Gilmore drums, Jake Weller plays all wind instruments, and I play bass, organ, guitar, bells, sing a bit, etc. The live band will be a little different, as Nick Hudson will be additional on organ and vocals, Jake will be doubling up on both horns and guitar. We'll all be singing.
Tell me more about the female singer. She has an almost R&B quality at times.
Thats not a female... it's Toby Driver. Toby has a beautiful voice and sings in rhythmic counterpoint, grooving really, against our backdrop of contemplative, organ based music. Birds is a fine example of the R&B quality you hear in his singing.
I know you've worked with Randall Dunn in the past. Did you work with him again in Seattle? Is there some home recording going on as well?
No, we didn't work with Randall. I had footed the cost of all the previous Asva recordings and couldn't do it again. But I liked my demos quite a bit and decided to try putting a record together using my Portastudio and recording wherever and whenever I could... Organ, bass, guitar, bells. I went nuts with it and learned much through hours and hours of trial and error. At some point in the process, things became pretty overwhelming, and Greg dumped all the tracks onto his basement studio. He recorded drums, horns, and vocals at his place, and we mixed there as well.
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"New World Order"
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The metal aspect of Asva's music has almost completely disappeared. Yet at this point, there's a phenomenon I'd label (as silly as it sounds) "former metal". People like you, Stephen O'Malley, Dylan Carlson, and Aaron Turner all have roots in a genre that you remain at most tangentially related to. In as far as you are able, describe the factors that moved Asva from a doom metal supergroup to a modernist chamber ensemble.
I can't speak for the others you mentioned. I haven't been comfortable with the term "doom" regarding Asva's music and don't think that it is particularly fitting to most of what I've been involved in writing since Burning Witch (which certainly was doom metal). Even the Sunn O))) stuff I wrote leaned to brighter ends: hope, fulfillment... positive as opposed to negative. I think this is a direct reflection of the circumstances that surround a person's life and evolve as that person matures and becomes comfortable within those surroundings, accepting who you are and infusing that which gives pleasure into your art. I'm still very much a fan of metal/hardcore and approach bass playing from that standpoint, i.e., very aggressively.
Are there plans to tour? Who will be in the touring band and will the album reflect the live material?
No touring plans as of yet. Toby lives in NYC and Nick is in UK, so just getting together for rehearsals is difficult. We will be pulling something together soon though, hopefully early this coming Fall. I expect we'll be in Brighton for rehearsals with Nick and UK/EU dates to follow. I'm not sure what the material will be. We're working on a new record now, so there will likely be tracks from P of A and some new music as well. Should be interesting...
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The new album sounds to me like a post-apocalyptic soundscape, as though the disparate strains of life that survived the societal breakdown keep shifting between harmony and discord. Very visual. What music, books, and films loomed heaviest over this album?
I don't get that impression myself, but it's wonderful you do! This record is the first that I absolutely let go of the reins and let happen what may. Greg and Toby put their fingerprints all over it, changing it so completely the music became something I was completely unaware it could become, and there's no way I can speak to what influenced them. For my contribution to the record, there are several real motivators that I tried to utilize: Josef Albers' Interaction of Color was surely the primary factor. The combination of Arvo Pärt and tintinnabuli with Talk Talk's Laughing Stock provided a sonic template. Wendell Berry's book Jayber Crow set the emotional aspect I was looking to finally accomplish in the music.
What's next for Asva and, in general, what's next for Stuart Dahlquist?
I've recorded demos for a followup to Presences of Absences and we'll be working on that as well as putting together the live show. Both are pretty substantial efforts, to say the least. Soundscape artist Philippe Petit and I just finished a collaborative effort that should be finding a outlet soon, and we've batted around the idea of doing some live shows together. I played almost exclusively reed organ on the recording and am not a very confident organist yet, so I'll be practicing a fair amount over the summer months in preparation. I've also been working on a hard rock project called Brokaw and will be pursuing touring prospects with that as well. In a nutshell, I'll be playing a hell of a lot of music.
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BUY PRESENCES OF ABSENCES
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