Aloft is a textured and enthralling album that provides insight into the mind of a musician who has overcome a long bought of grief. While no longer touching on the topic of grief itself, the album does show how a stretch of self-imposed isolation for coping purposes can affect the mind.
Grief is a hell of a thing. The loss of someone or something is a feeling that is entirely too common to everyone, one the affects everyone, but one that hits us all in different ways. Many try coping by maintaining a busy routine, others withdraw from social interaction and hope a healing chrysalis of isolation forms and removes all inner wounds. No one way is uniformly effective for everyone, which makes it such a disarming process to undergo. Some incredible and poignant works have been created through grief, as channelling emotions into creative process is one useful tool for catharsis. The notion of exorcising demons and feelings of pain and torment is not at all unheard of in music – it’s one of the primary drivers of creativity in many genres – but Sydney’s Cull manages to do it in a sublimely approachable way, making dreamy art-rock that draws elements from a multitude of genres and makes it touching to many ears.
Cull’s new LP Aloft is a special album and it’s one that took me largely by surprise. My head was so thoroughly entrenched in grittier areas of Australian music that I was neglecting the crisp, artful, cleanness of Cull’s latest work. The group revolves around the creative output of one Jonathan ‘Chumpy’ Ly, a talented musician who formed Cull in 2012 as an outlet for grief over the passing of a close family member. After a string of heavy singles and an EP informed by this emotion, this record involved Chumpy isolating himself under his loft bed, where he began to create a work that wasn’t so much influenced by grief, but informed by the transformative power of its process.
Aloft was released in late October, and thanks to my unintentional dilly-dallying with other soundscapes the album threatened to pass me by (something that happens to me far too often). Press material describes Aloft as the first phase of the band’s life (or more specifically, Chumpy’s) after the grieving period and in a sense it feels that way. The album creates a vibe evoking images of sunshine poking through rainclouds. There are moments of stark beauty breaking through haze and clarity emerging from befuddlement. That being said, Aloft is still a very emotional record and it’s still an isolated record, thanks mostly to the way it was created. Each wave of crushing noise and phase of delicate production is dripping in some form of feeling – the album is clean and crisp but not hollow, it’s textured in both arrangement and mood.
Chumpy is never in a rush to sing, or talk to the listener. Aloft drifts through movements of just music, allowing the mood to be determined by the instrumentation rather than lyrical dictation. The crushing breakdowns and ambient interludes are equally beautiful, not overwrought or too much for the ear. When the volume is high the subtleties emerge and the sound becomes much lusher. That being said, beyond the music there are some moving moments spurred by Chumpy’s reflective prose.
One of Aloft’s early singles, ‘Magi Fuel’ is an incredibly dynamic track, one that incorporates every season in a day, so to speak. The haunting singular verse seems to examine the effect of burning out, breaking under pressure, becoming ensnared in something bigger than the self (this is stronger than anything I’ll handle / easy on the throttle / you’ll burn out the magi fuel). ‘The Quality of Being Lifelike’ doesn’t give the listeners much to take away lyrics wise, but the small, poignant fragment provided give reason to think it’s all about keeping up appearances, trying to regain some sense of compassion after being through a draining experience and feeling alien after not being able to empathise (could you love without a heartbeat? / or am I alone?). Chumpy addresses his own isolation under his loft bed in ‘The Safest Place I Know’ (It’s the safest address I know / don’t you dare pull me out / I’ll shrivel into grey little pieces of matter / yuck, but no one visits anyway) and again in ‘Loft In Space’ (What do I do / man, I’m out of touch / how do I get / to the other side?).
Aloft is the product of self-imposed isolation, working in solitude to overcome grief and marvelling at how the loneliness can take its toll. Chumpy locked himself away and emerged with something beautiful, but to say that Aloft is an album without sadness is incorrect. While Chumpy has come to terms with one loss, he deals with another – the loss of self, his identity and his ability to connect with others. I have no clue if I’m on the money, but I’d bet a decent sum that I’m close if given the chance. The vocals serve as part of a greater whole, with Chumpy’s words ending up filling a hole that he was similarly trying to fill inside himself. The music is lush, mournful, aggressive, dream-like, soothing, depressing and hopeful – all moods that suit the grieving and healing process. Are there possible criticisms for the album? People might have a few – I can imagine those not into psych or shoegaze might find the musical crescendos and shifts overly indulgent, but exploring soundscapes in this way is part of the genre, deal with it. Aloft is the product of a person dealing with things as best as he can, and if there is any album that can ease the process for others it might just be this one.