Cenizas, and the Tension in Stillness

On March 30th 2020 » By Jonah Graber

nicolas jaar

Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Cenizas, the first project Nicolás Jaar’s released under his own name in four years.

Nicolás Jaar is a man of many talents, but a remarkable producer before anything else. Cenizas isn’t his first project of the year—in February he released his second project under the alias Against All Logic, 2017-2019. The project traded in the disco-soul electronics of its predecessor (2012-2017) for darker, smokier techno. In the midst of all of these, he contributed heavily to the production of FKA Twigs’ masterpiece of last year, MAGDALENE. The most recent addition to his prolific output is his first album under his own name in four years, Cenizas.

An album from Jaar, under his name, is a completely different beast than that of his side projects. They’re serious in tone, difficult to predict, and often quieter. The charming indie quality of something like “Heart” from Psychic (a collaborative project between Nico and bandmate Dave Harrington, released in 2013 under the name DARKSIDE) or the irresistible groove of something like “This Old House Is All That I Have” from 2012-2017 is nowhere to be found here. Instead, Jaar takes Cenizas as an opportunity to wallow in stillness, and to exploit the grief, fear, chaos and anxiety that bubbles below the surface of a forced calm.

Cenizas opens with “Vanish.” It’s an ambient construction of woodwinds, tense but gentle noise, and an eerie, minimal bassline. In perfect harmony, these pieces slowly dance around each other, until they don’t. After a moment, Jaar cries out again and again: “Say you’re coming back.” It’s a harmony unlike any other from Jaar — equal parts lush, gorgeous, and haunting.

The album maintains an underlying tension from the very beginning to the very end. This comes in the form of drones, basslines, pads and more that operate almost exclusively in the lowest frequencies that they can without sacrificing texture. These components never step into the clarity of the forefront of the mix or operate as leading instruments, but have a way of consistently dictating the mood and direction of every song.

The dismal, but peaceful piano of “Garden” feels like a moment of solace. It’s a moment to reflect, when the stillness isn’t so overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Until again, slightly sinister, ambient pads creep their way into the composition and remind me of the discomfort in solitude, the fear of being still. Like clockwork, the return of the tension erodes and completely dissolves what comfort and stability there was in the piano that leads. It falls apart, echoing into mush as the occasional bum note drives the listener further into isolation by dissonance.

On “Gocce,” Jaar pulls the curtain all the way back. A two-note bassline ticks below the surface like a wicked clock while dazzling, rapid and glamorous keys become one of the first instruments in the record to stare the listener in the face. It’s truly bewitching, and pulls the listener in as if they’re prey who has fallen for the trap of a cunning predator.

An outlier, sonically speaking, “Faith Made Of Silk” closes Cenizas. The tension that has driven the album to this point is notably absent, and instead, a synth and the occasional organ takes over, with non-stop drums that stumble around as if they’re sprinting from the tension that persisted throughout. Most of us haven’t found a way to deal with the emotions of isolation, other than to take things day by day, moment by moment but maybe “Faith Made Of Silk” — the one song on the album to escape the uncertainty in the stillness of Cenizas — suggests a solution. Having felt like there’s “nowhere to look” by virtue of stillness, the track escapes only when it will “look around, and ahead.”

Jonah

Jonah Graber

Jonah is a production student at UW-Madison. Most nights he dreams that he is Spider-man and hopes that maybe one day he will be.

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