Why do the monoliths hold such power? They apparently propelled evolution onto the right course that landed us here. They invoke a response that usually pushes its observer closer. They’re seen floating around space, evidently aimlessly, and they’ve been spotted standing upright on surfaces of barren landscapes. They hold a lot of significance, probably more than could be guessed. But what do they represent, and what put them where they’re found? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly doesn’t provide many answers, but it does give enough visual stimulation to point us into some kind of direction. And it’s that slight nudge onto the course for answers that gives the film momentum, amplifying it further, far beyond the exceptional display of colors and effects that it is.
Third Law is cut from the same cinematic cloth that made 2001 such a dazzlingly blinding exploration of the seemingly emptiness of space and the even further venture into the search for meaning that may never be found. And really, the same could be said of any of Roly Porter’s releases, especially Life Cycle of a Massive Star. He’s essentially an auteur, bridging science fiction film principles and ideals into a realm of soundscapes and tones. This isn’t the path of sci-fi inspiration that David Bowie took, creating galactic characters and designing off-the-wall, operatic space rock. This is the music of someone who has been to the edge of a black hole, gazed directly into the impossibly stretching nullity, and come back a new man. It’s claustrophobic, yet emits nothing but grandiosity. He comes from the same chaotic school of ambient thought that Ben Frost and Daniel Lopatin built careers out of, aided by his thematic focus of malfunction in the void. In a sense, Porter has delivered the soundtrack to the universe, enveloped both by the inescapability of insignificance and the propulsion of witnessing something more than human minds could ever fathom.
Like all good droning ambient music, Third Law blurs the line between instrumentation and sound design, creating facets entirely its own full of resonant tones, static glitches, and haunting vocal distortions that feel crushed under the pressures of space. “High Places” opens with a chillingly throaty vocalization that sounds unearthly and unintentional, like a final gasp for life. It morphs into an electronically throbbing myriad of tones that would effortlessly back the eclipse of a planet or the death of a star. These moments of unnerving repose are cut severely by harsh drills of static, providing assurance that in space, there exists no comforting security.
These normally dissonant sounds and textures merge beautifully against Porter’s multilayered backdrops of the nothingness. “In Flight” features the intensity that comes when a spaceship malfunctions, growing and shifting into a climax that sounds like a metal pipe banging against the walls of the craft’s interior. “Mass” increases velocity before returning to its clangorous foundations, like a planet whose rotation grows more and more unstable until eventually collapsing into itself, unsupported by its own weight. “4101” is the terrifying realization that human life, relative to the expanses of the universe and the natural phenomena that occurs within it, is ultimately irrelevant and unfathomably dwarfed. It’s a marvel to experience the soft glows of the abyss, but it’s also horrifying when put in relation to our own significance.
It’s hard to say what emotions Porter intentionally evokes throughout Third Law and which are purely a matter of the listener’s tendency to think inwardly. “In System” provides the gentle thudding of what it must feel like to see infinite darkness glide by as you burst through it at light speed, but it also has the intimacy that can come when gazing out the window on a car ride home, flooded by the fleeting memories of the trip. This intimacy is furthered by Porter’s ability to approach compositions on both an expansive and molecular scale, combining both in a seamless daze of grandeur and familiarity. “Departure Stage” relies on the booming vibrations used throughout the album, but on this track they’re paired with electric static fuzz that creates an askew feeling, reminiscent of the unstoppable rise of a panic attack.
It’s fitting that the last sounds heard on Third Law are the last thing expected from an album showing so much poise and refinement in capturing the sensations of being outside Earth’s atmosphere. This isn’t to say the closing track, “Known Space”, is out of place in its use of sci-fi themed synth notes. Rather, it shows Porter’s ability to flex his range of electronic elements. The title is a nice, ironic summation of just how uncertain Third Law, and by extension the confines of space, truly is. It may not provide any explanations, but the album certainly raises a lot of questions about our place in this world and beyond it. Are our lives really less important than the celestial stretch? Porter’s perpetual silence says more than words ever could.
– Zach W.