Lawrence English: Cruel Optimism

- The phrase “Quiet Loud” was most commonly utilised in the 1990s to describe the dynamic of many of that era’s guitar bands such as Nirvana and The Pixies, specifically the way in which these groups would frequently follow a tense, quiet verse with an explosive, loud chorus. While it would be ludicrous to compare Brisbane soundmaker Lawrence English with such acts, in a strange way, you could also apply “quiet loud” as a partial descriptor of his music. Paradoxically, his work somehow manages to be quiet and loud at the same time. Take Hard Rain, the monolithic opening track of his new album Cruel Optimism as an example – turn this track up, and you are enveloped in a cavernous, all-encompassing howl of sound. Yet at the same time, there is something gentle and meditative about the piece.

Such is the mysterious power of English’s new album, where he displays a sophisticated approach to sound which can unsettle and sooth the listener at the exact same moment. Those familiar with the exotic underworld of Brisbane music will be similarly aware of English, not just as a composer and performer, but also as a live event curator and head of internationally-acclaimed experimental music label Room 40.

His own music is suitably ambitious, but in a warm, approachable manner, whether he’s engaging in field recordings of the Arctic and thunderstorms or, as is the case here, creating a rich expanse of noise and drone, both visceral and cerebral in nature. Although these pieces of music can certainly be enjoyed in isolation, the album works best as one continual work, as he subtly shifts from the crashing shards of Hammering A Screw to the quiet contemplation of Requiem For A Reaper / Pillar Of Cloud.

English states the record is, in his words, “one of protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures”. So, as dark is it often is, that very protest at an ever more intolerant world, and his own open encouragement to move towards something more profound, is what makes the album sound ultimately triumphant.

This openness is also evident in the number of high-profile collaborators who help bring these pieces to life, from Swans veterans Thor Harris and Norman Westberg to Necks pianist Chris Abrahams and the choral work of Australian Voices. All of the musicians who appear on Cruel Optimism, however, are not here to stand out from the crowd. Rather, they contribute to the overall textures throughout the album; thus the voices, guitar, hammer dulcimer, trombone and double bass in the track Negative Drone are in the service of the piece itself; it’s an exercise in tone and atmosphere over distinctive instrumental arrangements.

That’s also how to get the most out of this album – it’s not even necessary to find a recognisable voice or instrument to hold on to. Instead, it should be treated as an experience in sheer sound and powerful emotional landscapes. In this capacity, Cruel Optimism is one of English’s most satisfying recordings to date.

- Matt Thrower.

Album Details

Album Title: Cruel Optimism
Artist: Lawrence English
Record Label: (Room40)