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Port St. Willow: Syncope Review

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Port St. Willow: <i>Syncope</i> Review

Port. St. Willow is resurrecting the lost art of the fade-in.

On Syncope, bits of songs flutter in like snatches of a dream, piece by piece: a hazy processor effect on “Atlas,” orphaned piano chords on “Opal,” jazzy guitar chords lightly bent on “Ordinary Pleasure.” Nicholas Principe’s silky voice floats over it all, in slow suspension. Nothing in this music is in any discernible hurry. Syncope holds no sharp edges, no abrupt outlines; to quote a prior Port St. Willow title, it’s all a “soft light rush” of sound.

Though teeming with understated sonic detail, Port St. Willow is primarily the work of one individual: songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Principe, who for this record recruited a group of musicians that includes Peter Silberman (The Antlers) and Will Epstein (High Water). Principe has a knack for sculpting patient, airy soundscapes and a gorgeous falsetto vocal presence. His 2012 debut, Holiday, was a thing of striking beauty, and it attracted the well-deserved adulation of critics and even Brian Eno, though not much of a broader audience—the songs were too slow and formless, their singer too reluctant to cater to mass-market indie preferences.

The follow-up, Syncope, is equally uncompromising. If anything, the record burrows even deeper into its own post-rock expanse—when Principe lists Talk Talk as an inspiration, we can gather he means Laughing Stock (1991) and not It’s My Life (1984). That influence comes to fore on first single “Ordinary Pleasure,” as does Syncope’s increased emphasis on improvisation: an alto saxophones honk in foggy, far-off abandon, awash in rising guitar vamps and wordless vocal swells. Songs glide from one to the next as a continual performance, which is how Principe has been playing this work in concert. The following track, “An Ocean We Both Know,” is a three-minute drone piece, as though the artist sought to isolate the indiscriminate hums and shivers of sound that fill up the background space of every song on here.

This record doesn’t quite have the cathartic momentum of some of Holiday’s fiercest tracks (“North,” “Consumed”), but it does has a self-contained cohesion that’s appealing. Principe describes Syncope as being “an expression of love in response to sudden change,” and while it is difficult to discern individual lyrics (the words, like the textures, exist just out of focus), it’s easy to pick up an overarching sense of longing. “So come on back!” Principe cries over long-sustained piano groans on “Ume,” as the song floats to a careful climax.

Curiously, that emotional heft is offset by an almost mechanical sound vocabulary. These songs are full of unusual creaks and tremors: the tapping of pipes on “Atlas,” a weird gurgling effect unspooling itself throughout “Ume.” The tracks are like old, rickety machinery, winding themselves to life. The centerpiece, “Motion,” squeezes drama out of tap-tapping percussion and a strangely haunting whistling motif. Like much of Syncope, the piece feels less like a song than a collection of textures—it might carry on for five minutes or forever, fading in and out and in again, embedding itself in your mind.

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