Written by: Dave Cantrell
One wonders whether the name had anything to do with it. If (sole constant member) Stephen Lawrie hadn’t chosen to name the outfit by which he conducts his music peregrinations the Telescopes would the journey have proven as vast and far-reaching as it has? Idle speculation, to be sure, but the fittingness here is a little too germane to think it sheer coincidence. In any case, true or not, the figurative magnitude of said instrument is quite powerful, and the concept of magnifying the cosmos would not be an inapt metaphor for the boundless pulsating explorations of composed noise that have to define the Telescopes as it’s evolved deep into its third decade. And while it’s potentially become a too-frequent signpost, to again invoke the mantle of Swans is nonetheless unavoidable as regards As Light Return. Slightly less feral of throb, it’s true, but in the pursuit of the out-there elemental there’s something of an aesthetic brethren aspect to the strivings of Michael Gira and Mr Lawrie.
Begun in the shambling shadow of the JAMC with debut LP Taste arriving in 1989, it’s telling to hear, as Lawrie relates it, all anyone around him in the early 90’s wanted was a hit song – the band were on Creation by the time of self-titled third album in 1992 – illustrating as it does how many relative light years the Telescopes sound has traveled since the heady days of shoegazing Britpop (it also speaks, of course, to how delusional industry types can be; the band then, while ostensibly more ‘poppy,’ were still not exactly most-likely-to when it came to bothering the charts). Speculation again, but it’s hard not to imagine it was such cluelessness that led to a decade of silence from the Telescopes camp after that release on Creation.
But nevermind. Resolute artist that he is, Lawrie reactivated the Telescopes project in 2002 and there’s been a steady stream of ever more emboldened albums ever since, of which As Light Return, released July 7th on Hamburg label Tapete, is the ninth overall.
Again, as he was for 2015’s Hidden Fields, Lawrie is joined by fierce Glaswegians St Deluxe and the results cast an impressive 5-peaked massif of sludge and nuance, glacial sheets and tides of menace rising and converging, dropping into shadow, the wind often howling, treated guitars trailing off like so much electronic scree as a rhythm section lurks with intent underneath it all, a monstrous trudging pulse that’s nothing less than the dextrous expression of pending dread. This accretion of epic strata is nowhere better built than on the 7½-minute avant-Sabbath shudder that is “Something in My Brain.”
An episode of daredevil peril insofar as the limits of an artform being fearlessly reached for, it’s quite possibly Telescopes’ most defining moment, this band’s unique brand of grindingly spry geologic pop never better realized. The Reid brothers, I dare say, would likely keel over midway through any effort at this level of sustained intensity. Since the rest of the album, from the feedback echo chamber pop of opener “You Can’t Reach What You Hunger” to the harrowing “Handful of Ashes” that closes proceedings with a wall of supple disturbing textures that postulate Bernard Hermann in a very dark and heavy, narcotized space and is marvelously spellbinding, matched wave by wave the churning eloquence of its centerpiece track, it would seem we’ve found, in one Stephen Lawrie, someone defying the effects of age, and in fact defying anything that would dare try to hinder him. A triumph, an absolute triumph.