by Todd Manning
Chicago-based instrumental duo Cleared have just released their first full-length in three years, Serpens, via Utech Records. Utilizing a minimalist approach to instrumentation, they create an immersive sonic experience with just guitar, drums and a few electronics.
Consisting of three tracks, Serpens might loosely fit into the Drone genre, but at times seems to be too active an entity to settle into that niche very comfortably. The album opener (and title track) is a prime example. The duo of Steven Hess and Michael Vallera present powerful and well-wrought textures, but then shift from one section to the next rather abruptly. The effect seems to mirror the structure of some occult ritual, each section of the ceremony having its own assigned soundtrack. While the effect can be somewhat jarring, it is also enthralling and not at all detrimental to the listening experience. At nearly twenty minutes in length, there is a lot of substance to digest in this track. The shifting sections allows the listener to more easily maintain their focus, keeping the mind from wandering.
The other two tracks, “Protection Bell” and “Red,” aren’t quite as expansive, their collective running time equaling that of the title piece. Yet they serve as perfect complements to “Serpens.” The changes here aren’t quite as sudden, but nevertheless, Cleared evolves the soundscapes rapidly compared to other acts, always giving the attentive listener something to grab onto. The soundscapes shift beneath the sparse percussion, often at the pace of a slow procession to unknown locales.
Something else that sets “Serpens” apart from being a straightforward drone release is the aforementioned percussion. Sometimes, the beats come across as mechanical and ominous, while at others, they seem hammered out on found materials, scrap metal and the like. Given the foreboding textures, the whole thing comes across as a meditative reflection on the post-apocalypse. One could experience this not only as a bleak science fiction future, but a slow unfolding rumination upon the changing world around us. At the pace of this shifting music, a “new normal” hijacks our lived reality.
Compared to their last full length, 2014’s Drown, Cleared have moved further away from anything conventional in their sound. Very little on their sonic palette resembles a conventional guitar, and the percussion is more like a drum machine than anything human. This is a hallmark of their success though. It is hard to imagine this pair “playing” in a conventional sense; instead one is rewarded for engaging with the sounds on their own terms. Cleared give the best of both worlds, providing an entrancing and meditative listening experience, while also possessing enough internal motion to give one the sense of traveling on internal journey, propelled by sound itself.