LA-based musician and visual artist Gabriel Brenner records music as pastel, an electronic blend of ambient, folk and r&b. While his previous release, Bone-Weary EP, was a soulful pop record, his latest EP, absent, just dust, sees a dramatic shift toward a more expansive, drone-led sound. Swapping out the immediate intimacy of the past pastel work, the new EP is at once beautiful and unnerving, both harsh and delicate, the wide open soundscapes charged with echo and hum, the air vibrating with remnants of past trauma.
Brenner’s mother is part Pima, and his father part Cherokee, and the EP is intended as an exploration of his “complex relationship with histories of settler colonialism, subsequent traumas, and contemporary Native identities,” an attempt to create a mode of communication able to convey the sense of loss. Rooted in themes of memory and violence, ‘raze’ is a track of of absence, the various instruments and sound recordings framing a central void, Brenner ranging from lonely natural samples to great, crazed swells of noise, atonal and ominous like staccato fury. As such, the song becomes the sonic representation of the silencing faced by Native peoples, the razing not just of buildings or cultures but the very language with which such destruction could be described.
Another track build from sound recordings, ‘haunt’ opens with a lonely trickle of water before the sound of agitated breathing, as though fleeing some terror or else trying to avoid its focus. Menacing electronics join the frame, the breath setting the tempo of the track, its repetition transforming the images it conjures, from fitful disturbance to immense discomfort and finally overwhelming shock. Following this, ‘silhouette’ feels positively rich, the unintelligible opening giving way to Brenner’s vocals which, despite their haunted quality, at least manage to form solid words. These, coupled with the instrumentation, coalesce into an emotive force which rises to a peak before dropping back into the stark ambience.
“Guess my sight’s been bad all along
’cause I look and I look
and I look and I look
but the books don’t say a thing
no they never
taught me a god damn thing”
‘braid’ follows with near complete silence, voices just audible but not decipherable, before Brenner’s grandmother, Carol Arriaza, recites a poem, adorned with nothing but what could be the ticking of a clock, tape hiss, the distant sound of rain. The track represents the strongest example of language within the release, but her somewhat modest tone suggests the persisting inability to communicate adequately, as though she knows such words cannot begin to evoke an entire history of trauma.
‘stammer’ follows with a drawn out opening, ambient tones stretched with the slow beauty of wide open spaces, before the wisps of something emerge, hovering just out of focus. Eventually, various other voice-like sounds appear, consonants cut short, desperate attempts to speak that result in no success, the words beheaded upon first contact with the air. But ironically, such a failure to communicate ends up saying as much or more than words ever could. As Brenner explains:
“With absent, just dust, what I realized is that this loss is a language itself. It is a language that one must sit with and parse through carefully to pull meaning from, a process I will perpetually repeat regardless of how much I come to know about my history, my people, and myself.”
absent, just dust is available now from the pastel Bandcamp page, including a cassette edition. Half of all proceeds will be donated to Freshet Collective, who offer jail and court support to water protectors resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as education to those in the surrounding areas.