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Ataxia Reviews

Much modern-day music makes a virtue of its flimsiness, of its disposability, happily bearing/baring its lightness, its play-status. Dwight Ashley's Ataxia does the opposite. Situating itself in polar opposition to frivolity and frippery, Ashley's heartfelt liner notes to this his third solo release contain ponderings as to whether it's feasible to sit through this sort of material without breaking something. Yes, Ataxia is that heavy, not just in the by now de rigueur dark and droney way that some ambient has about it; no, it's chewy and indigestible at times, and occasionally bordering on a relative of structured noise, but nevertheless still possessed of sufficient harmonic material not to frighten off the more adventurous of non-experimental listeners (though not, incidentally, extending to the vacuous becalmed shores of the "new age" that the Gracenote database would assign it as ill-fitting "genre" categorization).

Ashley has in the past indicated the spirit of his musical style by the tag "neo-expressionism." For the uninitiated, this refers to an approach in which the artist handles the materials in a rough and raw way, typically expressing violent emotion, developing in the late 1970s as a reaction against the conceptual and minimalistic art of the 1970s. Ataxia's status as a work within the ambit covered by the above definition is indeed clear. Though it starts out with the relatively harmonious drift of "Impervious," Ataxia then wades into deeper murkier waters with "When The Waters Came," a thick and threatening undertow above which a bank of dissonant chords keeningly swells and eventually hangs, almost engulfing the listener. The watery sea-inclined metaphors are particularly apt here since the recording of part of Ataxia was attended by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. "Black Swamp, Bright Sun" is a decidedly uneasy calm after the storm-stentorian smears of a string-like synth treatment elaborate a meandering almost-melody that hovers between plangency and resignation. "Circus of Sharp Toys" hosts a background environmental hubbub before eventually presenting a melodramatic passage redolent of stern neo-Russian accompaniments to brutalist state solemnities. "Dance of the Wobbler" relents, offering soft and wibbling melodics, as if Ashley were allowing us a breath of air before launching us back into submariner mode on "As We Became Complacent," whose title hints at possible polemics underlying this work, its initial formlessness metastasizing into a form of dense industrial-orchestral drift. Darkish-hued ambient meets virtual-orchestral post-industriality is, then, the signature sound of this searching, sometimes harrowing, collection.

— Alan Lockett
e/i Magazine

Dwight Ashley may never learn to tame his impulses into a style. The smoldering emotion of Ataxia (68'28") does not fit comfortably into any one movement. His influences here are less musical and more from national and world events. In 12 crowded compositions Ashley finds refuge in a surreal world of sound. On Ataxia his so-called neo-expressionism melts into a tempestuous state of the union message where blunt collages of battling tonalities and churning sonic textures advance like a storm front. With very little in the way of rhythm, melody and harmony, Ashley's compositions are realized through variations in timbre and tone - the most basic concept in Electronic Music. The songs are found in the making, and Ashley discovers new possibilities along the way. His work penetrates, then devours. It is a way of thinking in sound - which captures the brutality of our time. Though the political inquisition of this work may estrange some listeners, Ashley is so strident and strange, he comes off looking like a harbinger, not an oddity. Ataxia is a truthful cultural inquest and appeals for less chaos on higher ground.

— Chuck van Zyl

Dwight Ashley is known for his expressionist ambient works. Parts of his latest album Ataxia were written in New Orleans before hurricane Katrina hit, and some influence of that event can be detected on a few tracks. This is the first of Dwight's solo albums that I've heard, but I believe that the abstract and kind of post-industrial elements apparently encountered on his previous albums can be found here too.

There's an oppressive sonic aura in many of the tracks. In "When the Waters Came" various hot and harsh drones intermingle before a mechanical glooping effect adds a sense of penetrating water rendered at an abstract level. Then in "Black Swamp, Bright Sun" unsettling drones and refrains take the listener to a realm that could be anywhere one's mind interprets it to be.

The word Ataxia means "Inability to coordinate voluntary muscle movement; unsteady movements and gait". This is a good choice of title for the album since much of the music has an odd quality of trying to resolve into something but not quite getting there. Indeed, the use of distorted and treated found sounds adds a dreamlike illusive aspect where events are followed rather than created.

A curiosity with the album is that though only twelve are listed on the digipak there are actually fourteen. The thirteenth is six seconds of silence, and the final is a "hidden" track consisting of a haunting slow melody played on piano with a resonance as though a piano sits in an empty high ceiling room and the listener is peeking through an ajar door.

Ataxia is similar to Dwight's collaborative work with Tim Story in that it's not the easiest music to listen to but perseverance is worth the effort. It's an album that appeals more to the intellect than the emotions.

— Dene Bebbington

This album is comprised of 12 tracks of varying moods. "Impervious" is a somber and at the same time dreamy landscape, with synths, unidentifiable sounds and soothing textures. "When the Waters Came" is more brooding, conjuring up images of strange creatures hiding inside murky waters. Dwight's trademark style is clearly evident on pieces like this one. Bubbling, liquid textures complete the picture. "Black Swamp, Bright Sun" - thunderous sounds give way for a mournful synth pad - all in a wonderfully low-fi setting. Really deep and intense stuff, almost to the point of being orchestral. Noisy bits dominate the final part of the track. "Circus of Sharp Toys" is filled with processed voice (?) samples and concrete textures. Strange but very effective stuff - a fascinating piece of musique concrete that does manage to evoke feelings of eerie uneasiness. You feel something bad's gonna happen but the tension is never released, as emotional synth pads appear for a while and then disappear back into the void. Excellent, dramatic stuff that could work extremely well in a film soundtrack. "Dance of the Wobbler" - this one sounds like being heard underwater. A strange and charming little piece. "As We Became Complacent" is the longest piece on the entire album. Not sure I have much to say about this track except that it's typical Dwight Ashley, albeit a tad darker than his usual work. The track has lots of atmospheric samples, noisy textures and dissonant synths. The beginning of "Our Dark Shallow Spoil" is possibly the bleakest stuff I've heard from Dwight Ashley yet - pure Dark Ambient, with low drones, noisy textures, echoing clangs and water drops. As the strings come in, it all becomes rather apocalyptic sounding. There's nothing pompous or aggressive - it's all rather subdued but full of anguish and despair. Some processed guitar textures add to the cold, steely nature of this composition. "Holiday From Complexity" is the shortest piece of the lot at just above 2 minutes in length. It's a classic Ambient track in the vein of Brian Eno or Harold Budd (lots of piano) and a touch of dissonance. "Withdrawal of the Many" introduces a brighter mood. Synth pads playing in a major key paint an unreal and majestic space. Once again, this piece would make for a terrific soundtrack to a movie. However, things become more unsettling as the sound of a train comes in, while the music breaks up and literally goes mad, with dramatic, Neo-Classical stabs of orchestra. The track ends once again in a serene, flowing mode. "Isle of Inevitability" consists of dark drones and various sharp / noisy samples. "Days Into Years" is another dissonant piano piece. The title track ends this album in the most disturbing way possible - it simply crashes on you with battling synths, restless pads, vinyl-like crackling and whistling dissonances. Overall, "Ataxia" is the darkest album I've heard yet from Dwight and it's a good one for those who like their music a bit hard, relentless and cruel. This album also has a pleasant surprise that I won't give away in this review (wink!)

— Artemi Pugachov
The Encyclopedia of Electronic Music

Categorization remains an imperative for some people, despite the fact that existing categories continue to decline in their ability to actually inform anyone of much of anything. What's needed is an adjustment in both attitude and expectations: way too much is made out of the adolescent need to figure out what to call it?

Still, the back cover of Dwight Ashley's Ataxia provides some earnest guidance, suggesting that the title should "File Under Electronic: experimental ambient; Classical: electronic / avant garde / minimalist music". Sadly, since Tower Records has recently declared itself finally and truly broke, the "Electronic: experimental ambient; Classical: electronic / avant garde / minimalist music" section may very well disappear from retail environments everywhere, forever.

But that shouldn't stop you from finding this recording. That Mr. Ashley's work largely refuses categorization is, of course, an aspect of its strength and its value to those actually interested in the way in which ideas that were initiated over the last few decades continue to filter into the present day, raising the bar for composers who remain engaged in music as a form capable of expressing much more than is now commonly asked of it.

Ataxia's principal accomplishment is in favoring form over formlessness. Across twelve pieces Ashley sensibly and meaningfully links a wealth of compositional forms that seamlessly embrace aspects of phonography, pure electronic and process techniques along with orchestral inflections -- in the case of "Circus of Sharp Toys", purely orchestral in instrumentation -- that readily recall but do not imitate Stockhausen, Ligeti, Bryars, Hovhaness and Kernis.

Most of Ataxia was written in New Orleans, just days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall and exposed FEMA as the Crony Reward Organization it is. And so the effect of what amounts to the U.S. federal government's waterboarding of an entire population leaves this music with a threatening and pelagic emotional charge. Ataxia traverses the stages within and between unstable surrounds which occasionally reach the terra firma of literal structure. The compositions ultimately favor an entropic path of unembellished dissolution and collapse. It's important to note the absence of any and every trace of sentimental melodrama. These pieces achieve an understated and implicit emotional charge that can only derive from authentic experience. Free of the cliché associative nonsense so heavily favored by practitioners of hyperbolic and romantic sonic mush, Ashley's allusions are evocative enough to extend beyond the specific and brush up against the universal. Ataxia accomplishes what will finally be categorized by anyone with open ears as that most illusive thing -- genuine, capital "M" Music.

— Kerry Leimer
sea of tranquility

When it comes to abstract ambient music, there is heavy-duty (from an emotional standpoint), then there is HEAVY-DUTY. An album documenting an artist's reaction to Hurricane Katrina's devastation is bound to be the latter. Dwight Ashley always makes challenging and provocative albums featuring music which is frequently dark and disturbing. However, even by his standards (he himself states in the liner notes "frankly, it may be asking too much for someone to sit through this sort of material without wanting to break something".), Ataxia (i.e. the "inability to coordinate voluntary muscle movements") is tough-sledding. Containing only scattered moments of outright musicality and conveying dark, sober and somber moods (but not scary per se), the CD certainly does a number on your psyche, provided you immerse yourself in it, which, I think, is the point of it all. As a depiction of Katrina"s disastrous aftermath and the resultant despair which settled over the Gulf Coast and New Orleans area (where Ashley recorded one of the CD's tracks, pre-Katrina), Ataxia works disturbingly well.

Ashley used synthesizers, samples, guitar and some keyboards as instruments. However, only occasionally will you be able to pinpoint what you're hearing, such as the plaintive pealing of electric guitar and feedback on the title track, as it morosely cries over a bed of loud drones and what sounds like escalating church organ chords. More often than not, the music on Ataxia should be viscerally explored. An earlier review of this album described it as immersive. While I agree with that assessment, don't treat it casually. Getting "too" close to songs like "When The Waters Came", "Circus of Sharp Toys", "As We Became Complacent" and "Our Dark Shallow Spoil", could have you reeling (again, though, that may be Ashley's intent).

On some tracks, the cacophony of synths, tones, drones, and sonic manipulations may overwhelm you. Pieces like When The Waters Came with its swirling synth washes, clanging reverberations, swells of keyboards and abstract textures, accurately convey the abject horror of advancing floodwaters. Despair mingles with awe at the sheer force of the cataclysmic event (conveyed through the juxtaposition of "music" with "noise" in the track). Moments of calm (e.g. Dance Of The Wobbler with warm warbling synths, gently undulating drones, and metallic shimmerings) provide needed respites from the dominant dread, e.g. the ten-minutes of abstract tones, noises and drones in As We Became Complacent.

Sometimes Ashley uses a conventional approach to conveying emotion, such as the adagio-like Withdrawal Of The Many an achingly sad portrait by synth strings and woodwinds, building toward a chaotic climax midway through the track with the clanging of a railroad train traveling down its tracks mixed with the dramatic crescendo of pipe organs before fading out into a warm wash of keyboards. Days Into Years, is a sparse piano tone poem, with the unsyncopated minor key notes jingling-jangling in random patterns of melancholy, an avant garde exploration of the instrument but not overwhelmingly alienating to traditionalists.

Recommending Ataxia is like suggesting someone watch a dreary and depressing yet brilliantly-made movie (e.g. Journey of Hope). There's no denying the art and craft of what Ashley has done. The question is simply how best to approach and appreciate this album. It's meaningless when played as traditional "background" ambient, yet Ashley is spot on when he questions if it's too intense to be digested all at once. On the other hand, listening to it in bits and pieces misses the point and lessens the impact. If you can handle "music" which may weigh down your soul over its sixty-plus minutes, than I certainly do encourage you to listen to Ataxia. Just remember that when it's over, you can go back to your normal life, which is more than can be said for some Gulf Coast residents.

— Bill Binkelman
New Age Reporter

In the liner notes to his new release, “Ataxia,” Dwight Ashley wonders if it’s “asking too much for someone to sit through this sort of material without breaking something.” True, Ataxia dark—as in very—and at times aggressive, but that’s what you end up with when you take the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina as a muse. The upside of such inspiration is that, as with all of Ashley’s previous releases, the depth of emotion, however grim, and the layers of sound are the reward for a sometimes gritty listening experience.

This is classic-style ambient, more sensation and evocation than outright musicality. It very quickly moves into the realm of immersive music, where one piece flows with precise ease into the next with no real breaks to pull the listener up from its depths. Thus, “Ataxia” is the sort of CD that has to be considered as a whole. And the whole is signature Ashley, a glimpse inside the artist that combines soft and understated floating melodies with rough-hewn, sometimes industrial-tinged backdrops and a hearty dollop of dissonance.

As a personal note, I love that every Ashley CD ends with a short solo piano piece that seems utterly detached from the rest of the work. It’s like a palate-cleansing sonic sorbet after the main course.

So is Ashley correct? Is it too much to ask for listeners to sit through “Ataxia”? No. But asking them to not keep going back to it to explore its depths? That would be asking too much.

— John Shanahan

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