At War With Walls & Mazes is a stunning debut wrung from classical precision and good old human gut-wrench. Son Lux’s first is a heady collection of songs breathing the same air and sharing the same space; painted from the same palette but set apart still—each is a distinct region of one broad, heaving sonic landscape. From afar, it’s an environment characterized by would-be contradictions: the austere grandness of chamber music undercut by undulating electronica; the intricately orchestral assembled via hip-hop collage; a day-plain pop ease silhouetted by deep soul. Up close, it’s clear that these contradictions are what hold the entire work together.
The prologue begins with the warm quaver of harmonica and a cold, androgynous breath: “Put down all your weapons/Let me in through your open wounds.” There’s a burst of drum, a piano hit that overwhelms the ears, and we’re on At War’s terra firma. First song “Break” is quiet and composed, punctuated by stabs of chaos—reversed instruments, errant electricity, an angry crowd—and given moody depth by the voice of Son Lux, which returns raw and whisper-pretty like Will Oldham’s. Next, “Weapons” flow in and out itself, building static, crystalline keys and thick bass into a pile of sharp edges that bounces like a rubber ball. An angelic cry breaks the rhythmic reverie and the snapping, cracking soundscape goes Richter. Conversely, “Betray” lays a slinky Portishead sulk for its bedrock, then morphs into a laidback, flute-textured upbeat. “Stay” counters this with a swarm of organ and violins, and a deep, unexpected blues.
The picture is always shifting—songs starting on a blast or ending in a whirling climb, occasionally dwelling in a single mood, but never succumbing to traditional structure. There’s “Tell,” which feels intimate, comprised of subtle tones, naked keys, low buzzing slide bass and voice sounding like a transmission from a tin-lined burrow. While the next plot over, “Wither” is a note-smashing hulk of machine crunch and skittering percussion, technically complex and seriously loud. Son Lux’s lyrics don't distract from the journey. Rather, the one and two-line snippets wind their way through the album’s space like mantras to be picked up or passed at will. In “Raise,” a macabre poetry moves with the music, coming in dulcet over bleeding sax, then getting swept up by swirling strings and pulsing electro. On “Stand,” a single unexplained sentence—“You stand between me and all my enemies”—is repeated ad infinitum, gaining in meaning even as it’s subducted under the piano-driven epic. As various permutations of voice, music and noise emerge, one imagines the Notwist’s Markus Acher lost in the bowels of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.” This is a very good thing.
After this undeniable apex, At War With Walls & Mazes approaches its quiet close. “War” is a sleepy overture to Son Lux’s wide embrace, glowing warm and full until white light gives way to the epilogue, and the album’s only outright motif: the “Weapons” melody, first heard with the prologue’s opening line. Then, Son Lux asked us to drop our weapons and let him in; now, leaving this place, his apparent plea seems much more like an invitation.
More about the artist Son Lux:
Meet a man driven wildly by music. A man classically trained, but rewired with his own two hands. A frequent collaborator, occasional curator and consummate “man behind the curtain” now emerging at the front of something yet unnamed. Somewhere between the concert hall and the club you’ll find his haunting liquid soundscapes, born of hip-hop composition, o’er-strung with chant, hinting at some divine unreachable. Meet Son Lux.
Ryan Lott was born in Denver in 1979. At 2, he moved to California; at 5, to Connecticut. His father made industrial adhesives; his mother made the home; he had one brother and one sister. He was the youngest. Piano lessons were a family rule and Ryan began at 6, counting down, in tears, the clicks of the 15-minute egg-timer. He hated it, and by the age of 12, he knew he wouldn’t be a classical concert pianist; instead he’d be a composer. He’d offset this revelation by performing covers of “Lithium” and “Suck My Kiss” on guitar in middle school dance bands. His parents brought him to Atlanta for high school; in turn, high school brought him drums, punk bands and a piano teacher who smuggled him a few lessons in jazz and pop.
In his third year studying composition and piano at Indiana University, Ryan began collaborating with a ballet and modern dance student who would become his wife. Writing music to her choreography set off a hunger in him that would soon grow into megalomania. In the newlyweds’ post-collegiate home of Cleveland, Ryan conceived a multimedia art gala dubbed CONNECT. The series’ second event featured 30 artists of various inclinations; he collaborated with 20, while entertaining dance commissions countrywide. With his wife and two friends, he founded the charitable ASH (Art Serving Humanity) Ensemble, and composed a piece for saxophone and tape that debuted in Slovenia. Back home, Ryan found himself performing to New York City for the first time—from inside of the Guggenheim—and collecting on two prestigious Ohio arts grants. In 2007, he moved to New York, accepting a job as a fulltime composer. His 12-year-old self smiled; Ryan should have rested.
But something was growing inside of the man. Through all his teeth-cutting on various styles and accomplishment through collaboration, there was something pushing against his guts: Ryan Lott needed to go solo. For three years he’d been compulsively collecting sounds—thousands of them—one and two-note fragments sampled from his personal collection and the local library’s. He turned his trained ear to recognizing consistent aural hues, built a palette, then began arranging not by melody—as a composer would—but by rhythm, as a beatmaker. He’d been making an album without realizing it. Now, for the first time, Ryan set out to make the music inside of him. It’d be a sort of pop, but divorced from verse-chorus form—memorable music without a hook. And he’d sing (also a first), but not traditional lyrics. His words would be small snippets—things read or overheard—open-ended and repeated like chants. Single notes became pulsing electronic orchestras; simple words became transcendent. Son Lux was born. And with it, the album At War with Walls and Mazes.
As befits the Ryan Lott legacy, Son Lux’s debut performance was a headlining college festival slot alongside Sufjan Stevens and Emmylou Harris (the result of winning a songwriting competition). His second show was at New York’s Knitting Factory, opening for Sole. Played live, At War becomes a thing of shifting parts and rhythms, Ryan breaking down the songs and reassembling at will, while overhead digital visuals warp, coil and collide in improvised harmony (courtesy of At War cover artist Joshua Ott). The impression left is warm and colorful with smatterings of darkness, something alien yet familiar, easy but indefinable. Like all good art, Son Lux is tapped directly into that great otherworldly unknown that feels right at home in the world we actually know.
Ryan composes two pieces of music a day for Fluid NY, a thriving editorial house, recently wrapped his third large-scale collaboration with the acclaimed Gina Gibney Dance company, is working on the next Son Lux album, has recently remixed Castanets (Asthmatic Kitty), and is currently working on a remix for Beirut as well as collaborations with My Brightest Diamond.