Drummer Ben Billington’s work as a member of the Chicago avant-jazz group Tiger Hatchery and noise outfit ONO can often be a frantic, scrambling affair. But as Quicksails, Billington opts for a more meditative, serene approach. His work under that moniker is constantly transforming: his 2015 album Fleurs de la Lune alternated between moments of stately synth grandeur and computer-meltdown bleeps and crackles; Silver Balloons in Clusters, released that same year, was ghostly and ominous—a long, weightless float through the unlit hallways of the Discovery One. All of them contained moments of defiance and difficulty—passages where the bottom seemed to drop out, instruments collapsed, and chaos reigned.
In this context, Mortal is Billington’s most straightforward and melodic work to date. It has the same galactic reach as Silver Balloons, but trades that album’s sinister mood for the soft twinkle of starlight. Album opener “Valley Voice” contrasts theremin-like synths with Carlos Chavarria’s mournful sax; “The Compound Blues” is build on a jazz-like brush-snare rhythm, Chavarria turning up again to weave drowsily through a plunking acoustic bass. Even the album’s most abrasive track, the whirring-and-clicking “Dance of Eyes,” is coated in gently-cascading synth, which blunts the prickliness of the rhythm. The tracks are layered and expansive; Billington avoids the temptation to cram every corner with sound. Instead, the bulk of the songs on Mortal are built on simple, steady rhythms, over which Billington drapes electronic flourishes like tinsel.
Ironically, Mortal was born of personal upheaval; the album notes reference migraines and claustrophobia, and the album is meant to be read as a diary chronicling a particularly dark year in Billington’s life. You wouldn’t know it from listening. Mortal is mostly calm and tranquil, hinting at melody without stating it outright, opting for serene drift over quaking panic. It makes a kind of sense: with Mortal, Billington creates the peace he was hoping to achieve.
—J. Edward Keyes