Let’s make one thing clear. There is more than just a sixty-nine minute record going on here.
We need to begin with the various components of Landfall, so what better way to start than with Kronos Quartet themselves? They are a four-piece string outfit consisting of two violins, one viola and one cello. Since the 70s, they have been pushing the boundaries of possibility in quartet string music by fusing their essentially traditional style with an array of artists across all genres. They have made over sixty records and have performed over a thousand live shows, with no less than forty awards to their name. Their ever expanding discography shows that, even after all of this, they have no intention of stopping or even slowing down.
Then, on the other side, we have avant-garde poet, multi-instrumentalist, multimedia engineer, and creative powerhouse Laurie Anderson. Like Kronos Quartet, her background warrants an extensive biography all of its own. Suffice to say that since the 80s, her reputation as a musical technician and provocateur of traditional media is as formidable as it is intriguing.
And then there is the underlining theme of this album: Hurricane Sandy, a storm which befell North America and caused much devastation during the October of 2015. In this album, the storm’s dramatic and tragic implications are encapsulated by the combined force of Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson. Having lost a vast wealth of her life’s work inside her storm-ravaged New York apartment, Anderson is able to gave a first hand reflection of the effects of living through that catastrophic episode of weather. The result is a haunting, bittersweet musical ensemble with the ability to blot out your surrounding reality and pull you unconditionally along for the ride. Don’t feel ashamed to admit you got lost along the way. Landfall does that. It soaks you up in a seemingly lateral stream of intricate violin progressions before bombarding you with a rockfall of offbeat electronic musings. If you are seeking to embody this album in the space of one track, then “We Learn to Speak yet Another Language” is the one to sample. It has a purist string opening which is swiftly followed by ambient electronics and spoken word storytelling.
It’s fair to say that in the most general sense, Kronos Quartet provide the emotion and Anderson provides the thought that drives it. By majority, the violins are the centerpiece of this album, but crucially not all of it. Laurie’s electronic experimental presence is an infusion which should not work, but by God it does. It disappears for segments on end but then returns suddenly, and with an irresistible lapse in context. This fantastical element adds extra depth to the already engaging string work, and so levelheadedness and surrealism collide harmoniously and run fluid throughout the record.
Anderson’s spoken word vocals cover the topic of Hurricane Sandy, both literally and metaphorically. Her voice, a true driving presence in this album, acts as a sophisticated and not entirely content narrator, keeping listeners on their toes with a few philosophical pointers along the way. Key moments of her annotations include her rant on “Dreams” and the profoundly bewildering “Nothing Left But Their Names”, where she uses her commonly used voice filter to take on an air of creepy masculinity.
And so listeners get a great deal more than an A-B journey through the devastating events of Hurricane Sandy. Landfall is a kind of chaotic storm in itself. The seemingly off-topic breakages in the story sink listeners into a swill of uncertainty. Ambient moments allow the brain to drift and reflect on what transpired. But if you made the mistake of zoning out too far, there are staggeringly energetic tracks like “Never What You Think it Will Be” to pull you back.
I strongly believe that to describe this record as a life-changing experience is to hardly exaggerate. You are defied not to feel its pounding conviction, or to get immersed inside its many wonders and perilous footfalls. Landfall is like a magic potion for the brain, a phantasmagorical trek where beauty and catastrophe are your guides, and the next record you hear afterwards may very well seem meager and irrelevant in comparison. This is a true classic, and a true masterpiece.
Notable tracks: “Dreams”; “We Learn to Speak Yet Another Language”; “Nothing Left But Their Names”
FFO: Clint Mansell, Ulver, Balanescu Quartet