Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal

There’s something distinctly Texan about Adam Wiltzie’s music. With the late Brian McBride, the drone titan co-founded Stars of the Lid in 1993, releasing seven albums of ambient music as wispy and ethereal as a desert mirage. Though he’s lived in Belgium for nearly 25 years, he continues to produce music that suggests both the nearly incomprehensible vastness of the American West and the dread secrets it seems to contain. His new album Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal sounds somewhere between a Western soundtrack and an emanation from an underground gas-mining operation, with tails of reverb from electric guitars bleeding into miasmas of strings and horns. Perhaps it’s time to think of Wiltzie in the tradition of European artists—the Wim Wenders of Paris, Texas, the Daft Punk of Electroma—fascinated with America’s enormity in contrast to the compact continent across the pond.

Remarkable though it might seem, given his lengthy string of collaborations and duo projects, this is Wiltzie’s first full-length under his own name. (It also contains only nine fugues for sodium pentothal—the co-author of “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface” retains his streak of mischief.) Wiltzie spends a lot of the album’s runtime in his orchestral-drone comfort zone, but whenever the terrain threatens to sound too well trod, he pulls out something like “Dim Hopes,” with its twinkling constellation of vibraphones, or “Stock Horror,” which seems in the process of being ground up and devoured by the earth. “Tissue of Lies” is one of the catchiest things he’s written, with a friendly two-chord guitar motif that’s all the more mysterious for sounding so familiar: maybe a cousin of Slowdive’s “Trellisaze,” or a ghost of classic rock.

Wiltzie has made plenty of music like this in the past, but it’s easy to forget that he hasn’t made much like it recently. His primary project for the last decade-plus has been A Winged Victory for the Sullen, his duo with Dustin O’Halloran, which feels a little more high-budget and magisterial than the almost self-deprecatingly quiet music he made in the first decade or so of his career: the self-titled Aix Em Klemm and Dead Texan albums, the sad and spectral emanations on the 2001 masterpiece The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid. (The Dead Texan, a collaboration with Christina Vantzou, particularly seems like a precedent for this record.) Is it a stretch to call an ambient drone album a crowd-pleaser? Wiltzie does everything you hope he will on Pentothal, and then some.

The opening track is titled “Buried at Westwood Memorial Park, in an Unmarked Grave, to the Left of Walter Matthau.” Fans will surely speculate that it’s a reference to the resting place of Brian McBride, but Wiltzie has confirmed it’s not; ambient albums have a nasty habit of getting contextually tangled up with tragedies that happened once the music was already recorded. Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal is the latest in a long string of albums concerned with ephemerality, and its emotional weight comes from the sense of a glacial time scale that renders human concerns profoundly irrelevant. The most important thing here is this feeling of impermanence, the illusion that the sources of these sounds dissipated into the Texas heat before the soundwaves reached your ears.