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Absent Without Leave: 'neath the Tumbling Stars

img  Tobias Fischer

In an interview with French webzine Autres Directions, George Mastrokostas once confessed to being a shy guy. As if one couldn't tell from his music. Adorned by cover images frequently depicting solitary landscapes in Autumn, his highly selective discography as absent without leave - comprising just three full-lengths, two collaborations and two EPs over a five year period – is mainly made up of pantomimic gestures in the half-light, a galaxy of „faded photographs“ and „postcards from nowhere“ stretching out across fields of eternal yearning. Major chords feel like strangers here. Beauty lies in melancholy. And even if the sun should occasionally flood these impressionist canvases made up of soft electro-acoustic brushstrokes with its gentle rays,  it remains locked away inside the composer's memory, in a time and space quickly slipping out of reach. Even the labels involved in publishing his catalogue are part of this astounding Gesamtkunstwerk, some of their names sounding as though they'd been made up in a dream: Distant Noise, Sound in Silence, Akward Silence, the list goes on. Mastrokosta's, clearly, is an oeuvre dealing obsessively with moments passed, with all the things one could have said, all the chances one might have seized and how to make sense of it all – post fact, not post rock, so to speak.

And yet, as 'neath the tumbling stars once again demonstrates, he obviously knows exactly what he's doing. As fragile and withdrawn as it may sound, this is really music of utmost intensity, realised by a musician with self-confidence, a crystal-clear picture of his intentions and the ability of realising them without compromise. Each note has been carefully mulled over here, every sound effect precisely placed, the composition of these three tracks honed to perfection. There's an element of virtuosity at play, less so in terms of technical versatility or upfront instrumental showmanship, but rather in the way tiny and outwardly trivial themes are developed into grand statements, stirred within a steaming-hot cauldron of emotional turbulence and then cut off just shortly before the tension gets unbearable. Mood is of seminal importance for absent without leave, from its visual presentation – 'neath the tumbling stars comes packaged in a striking cover made up of a bright-red plain of paint, with the project name and release title all but bleeding into the background – to its meticulous sound design – a spacious, warm and organic ambiance balanced by Taylor Deupree - but it is not, as with many comparable acts, a means to an end. To Mastrokostas, there always needs to be a compositional challenge as well, a musical angle, be it in the form of a sudden melodic turn or surprising twist in arrangement, to make the journey  worthwhile.

And so 'neath the tumbling stars, despite its obvious allusions into both directions, once again neither fits the neo-post-rock drawer Mastrokostas' work has frequently been filed into because of its instrumentation and romantic inclinations, nor the drone- and guitar-loop end of the spectrum. Instead, these are equally beguiling and ambitious instrumental compositions on which timbre, melody and sound are equitable elements. Especially the two shorter cuts on the B-side to this 12inch vinyl-release may seem like mere miniatures, finger exercises and colour play at first. Mostly sporting a clean, bluesy guitar sound, a rhythmical ostinato over broken chords and a linear build-up, they appear to be over before they'd really begun. And yet, as one listens more closely, what seemed to be reticence turns out to be dark resolve. Instead of cramming his arrangements with an ever-denser web of motivic relations, Mastrokostas slowly weaves together just a handful of lines and then suddenly lets go of them, abruptly ending the phase of development and leaving the music to play itself. It is only after one or two minutes that one realises that this „is it“, that nothing more is going to come and, even more astoundingly, nothing needs to either.

Counterpointing these intimate pieces is the A-side's title track, an eleven-minute ride on an eight-bar riff chopped into two just ever-so-slightly asymmetrical halves to hypnotic effect. Tightly following the constructional schematics of post rock within its opening bars, it initially seems to be headed for a genre-typical explosion, Mastrokostas doubling his rhythmical backbone in the upper registers, very slowly adding harmonic swells to each chord which coalesce into a tight web of sustained tones and then picking up the Leitmotif with soaring emphasis. When, around the six minute mark, a demure wall of noise, fuzz and distortion starts building up in the distance, the remaining minutes seem predetermined to end in a climactic outburst of passion and unresolved suspense. And yet, the exact opposite happens, as this hissing cloud of harmonics and crunch never rises beyond a murmur, suspended in mid-air for the remaining duration of the piece. It is a move which may seem to counterpoint the rules of the game, but which, in the end, actually serves to sustain and ultimately increase the underlying sentiments of desire and sorrow. There is no escape here, the unavoidable manifesting itself with sardonic joy.

In a way, Mastrokostas is not using music to fulfill his fantasies of machismo and a musical valve, but to truly turns his inside out: On 'neath the tumbling stars, he is stuck with being the shy guy, until the bitter end.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Absent Without Leave
Homepage: three:four Records

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