Album of the Day: Alex Zhang Hungtai, “Divine Weight”

In 2014, Alex Zhang Hungtai put his Dirty Beaches project to sleep with an emotionally heavy final chapter, switching from dirty, lo-fi pop to expansive epics heavy on spiritual saxophone and viola. In the four years that followed, he’s split his time between working as a free jazz saxophone sideman, and working out his demons over intimate keyboard arrangements. Divine Weight brings the two Zhangs together, digitally reworking “failed” (in his own words) saxophone compositions into brooding oceanic ambience that’s been processed out of recognition. Opening track “Pierrot” scatters mournful notes from the man’s horn into a cavernous echo chamber, while lonely piano chords bristle underneath. It’s a compelling facade, Zhang playing up his role as the lonely sufferer namechecked in the track’s title, splitting his turmoil into scattered sax. Elsewhere on the record, Zhang moves even more slowly, recalling Popol Vuh at their keyboard choir peak.

Zhang has been performing under his own name for four years now, and the music he’s created feels more honest; spiritual panic is now firmly at the core of Zhang’s solo work. His own mixed background—coming in some way from Canada, Taiwan, and the U.S. all at once—has already been a key driver for the artist, but a few years of traveling the world and improvising with new instrumentation now make it seem as if he’s left planet Earth behind altogether. The celestial scope hinted at in the album’s title fully emerges during the vast 20-minute title track that closes the album, a monstrous cavalcade of overlapping organs. More than anything Alex Zhang Hungtai has done before, this is narcotic music. Better yet, it’s healing music.

-Tristan Bath

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