Bordeaux’s Dune du Pilat is an unlikely, yet stunning mix of nature’s sublime forces: One smells fir from the forest behind it and sees the Atlantic coast, trees or a desert from its peak. Orcas is like the dune, but the strangely juxtaposed elements are instead classical, pop and ambient music. A collaboration between Benoît Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri (of The Sight Below), Orcas find a space that floats between velvet vocals and Pioulard’s field recordings in a time frozen between dreams and a reality beautifully faded by the sun.
Just in case you missed Obscure Mythology 101 in school — hell, I even did a year of classical Greek and we never got any further than sniggering about pederasty — Orcus was lord of the underworld and punisher of broken promises. Death and betrayal, in turn, are classic pop themes, but the reason I mention the god who would later transmute into Dis Pater (Pluto, now sadly demoted from planetary status) and then the more familiar Hades is because the genus Orcinus, to which the orca or killer whale belongs, is named for him — presumably, emerging from a misbegotten coupling (Free Willy?) with Poseidon. The album under discussion, though it couldn’t be described by that adjective, is itself the outcome of a union — in this case, that of Rafael Anton Irisarri (who also records as The Sight Below) and Thomas Meluch (a.
The question isn't why Thomas Meluch (aka Benoît Pioulard) and Rafael Anton Irisarri decided to work together; it's what took them so long. While Meluch's music often resembles an amnesiac crooner making up karaoke lyrics for Boards of Canada instrumentals, and Irisarri splits the difference between Harold Budd and Gas (trending post-minimal under his own name and electronic as the Sight Below), both of them freely muddle up ambient, classical, electronic, and pop idioms in search of the ideal blend of melodic immediacy and formal opacity. And they've been moving in the same interlocked circles for years, recording for most of the bigger labels that steward this furtive electro-acoustic stuff: Kranky and Type (Pioulard), Room40 and Miasmah (Irisarri), and Ghostly International (both).
Growing as it does out of a collaboration between two artists already known for their solo work, Benoit Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri of the Sight Below, Orcas had certain expectations to live up to on its self-titled debut. The album generally meets them, an enjoyable creation that, despite its clear roots, has its own logic and general aesthetic. "Pallor Cedes" begins the album with a kind of demi-glitch approach to rhythm, clipped guitar noise and rising and falling drones settling in behind a slow, acoustic guitar melody and calm, slightly yearning vocals, themselves turning into a call and response collage of their own.
On “Arrow Drawn”, BenoÃ®t Pioulard sings, “I never ever cared about your real name/So never tell them your real name,” hinting at a de-centered and remote subjectivity. It’s an apt description of the music of Orcas: distant, elusive, and de-centered. The band plays right into this characterization on Orcas, titling one of their ambient soundscapes that pass for songs “Certain Abstractions”.
For those familiar with the work of Rafael Anton Irisarri (aka the Sight Below) and that of Benoît Pioulard, this collaboration doesn't hold many outright surprises. That said, both artists are among the most accomplished within in their genre, and, for the most part, this disc matches the quality of their respective catalogues. The pair's billowy cloudscape is plush and welcoming, even when the tone is darker, in the same way that an album like Bark Psychosis's Hex balances sultry mystery with shadowy atmospherics.
Thomas Meluch and Rafael Anton Irisarri already have pretty good things going with their main musical endeavors – the gauzy ambient folk of Benoît Pioulard, and the sometimes techno-baiting, amorphous ambient shapes of The Sight Below. Despite differences in approach, both exude a certain mood that end users could lump together – a shared likelihood of being listened to under the same lonesomely overcast and introspective conditions. Their debut album as a duo, the self-titled Orcas, stays in the same zone, but edges closer to the sublime and harrowing atmospheres more associated with Irisarri.