Comaduster :: Hollow Worlds (Tympanik Audio)

 That Hollow Worlds is Cardinal’s debut LP is nothing short of miraculous. Little wonder, then, that it has been such a hotly anticipated release, as there are precious few artists out there capable of creating such finely cut gems as this.

When an artist develops a reputation and a following that builds up incredible levels of anticipation for a debut album, and that album then takes nearly three and a half years to complete, it’s in severe danger of disappointing. Hollow Worlds is the debut album from Canadian sound designer Réal Cardinal who drew a great deal of media and public attention with his debut, self-released, digital-only Slip Through EP in 2009 and is just such a hotly anticipated debut and thankfully, disappointment is most definitely not on the menu.

Cardinal has an experienced background in sound design and engineering, particular in the gaming market, and began working for Bioware Edmonton in 2008. Among other projects he has worked on the well known Dragon Age games and most recently the leviathan Mass Effect series, the second recent tie-in to that particular franchise we’ve seen on Tympanik Audio, following Totakeke’s Digital Exorcist that based its themes around a famous sample from the critically and publicly acclaimed Overlord DLC for Mass Effect 2.

The Mass Effect trilogy became a massive worldwide gaming phenomenon thanks to its potent mix of first-person shooter, incredibly detailed and intriguing plot lines, frenetic cinematic cut-scenes, a massive ensemble cast of fascinating characters, role-playing elements that could drastically alter the direction of the game, a rich and atmospheric universe populated with beautiful environments, and an immersive ambient and searing industrial soundtrack, to which Comaduster also contributed an in-game track.

The sound effects, music and action in such games need to be carefully micro-managed so as not to fatigue or irritate players, especially when certain sound effects or slices of incidental music may be heard over and over again. Mixing as it does the searing and precisely programmed excesses of genres like dubstep, bass and industrial music with a digital soundstage full of complex FX and plumes of post-rock guitar riffs, such sound-design experience cannot be underestimated when creating an album like Hollow Worlds. Cardinal applies his with considerable panache to create a perfectly paced and balanced experience that floats on a solid bed of atmospheric sonic environments without ever becoming suffocating or exhausting.

All of this digital precision and genre-blending would be stunning enough in and of itself, but Comaduster’s rigorous and painstaking production work has all been created in service of one thing, and one thing only: the beautifully arranged songs. Once again taking on the vocals himself (except on “Nightsail” where Cecil Frena is guest duty), Cardinal variously whispers, exhales, croons, intones, rasps and screams as the mood and pacing takes him. Though he still doesn’t sound like he is fully confident in his own skin as a vocal front man, he’s clearly more comfortable than previously.

Opening track “Ma” (that leads in with an asteroid-impacting boom) is an instrumental intro of ground-pounding bass pads and dubsteppy, scything robotic sweeps and pulses, that doesn’t quite prepare you for the strobing intensity and flashing brilliance of what is to follow on Hollow Worlds.

“Winter Eyes”—previously released as a standalone digital single to promote the album—is a fantastic example, with Cardinal exhibiting almost bipolar levels of restraint and excess both vocally and in the arrangements, as it skips from chilly ambient pads and industrial fx to bullet-time dubstep stings, bringing the whole track to gloriously satisfying conclusion with a final double-time chorus and snow-drift ambient outro.

The rhythms in “The Send Off” are fired like bastic-headed, Dalek-killing bullets from an M60 that, combined with complex IDM arrangements and edgy synth-pop via pretty much every single facet of his various vocal performances in one place, create an even more genre-busting work that reveals new detail with every listen. In stark contrast, “Unfound” consists of a lone, contemplative, piano that slowly morphs into vinyl-crackle soaked digital sources that you might expect Rick Deckard to be idly playing in his apartment before drifting into unconsciousness.

Of particular note is the epic “Nightsail” that, as previously mentioned, features Cecil Frena demonstrating quite the vocal range as he shifts from effortlessly delivered falsetto to the lower registers with ease. There’s a narrative structure to the piece together with measured timing, pacing and tone, and across its eleven minutes we get drum-and-bass verses, possibly the album’s most memorable chorus, slowed, swirling vortices of guitar and crackling glitch, a sandstorm of cut-up digital debris and finally a melting ambient outro.

The title track makes the best use of post-rock guitar riffs here, exquisitely melding them with glitchy vocals and electronic melodic hooks that could very easily have become a famous repeated theme in a Mass Effect game, the kind that could play on an infinite loop and simply never get old. And elsewhere you have the firework fx, short-circuiting sparks, android wail and glitch of “Walls” replete with vocoder-vocals, the Recoil-esque moody death-knell piano, breathy vocals and pools of black sub-bass in the brooding “Chasms,” and the closing post-rock, reverb-drenched lushness of “Connecting The Seams.”

Any flaws the album has are incredibly minor, nit-picky ones. Cardinal’s vocals are very strong on the whole, but there are a few occasions (“Walls,” “Chasm”) where it almost feels like he is holding back. “Futureproof Design” is another incredibly hooky song, but lacks the carefully considered approach of other tracks on Hollow Worlds, with Cardinal’s few moments of larynx-searing screams feeling a little gratuitous and unsubtle, and “Unfound” is perhaps a little too minimal and out of place among its noisier brethren.

That this is Cardinale’s debut LP is nothing short of miraculous and it’s little wonder Hollow Worlds has been such a hotly anticipated release. There are precious few artists out there capable of creating such finely cut gems as this, albums that genuinely cross genre-borders in such an appealing and natural way that it’s tempting to say there is literally something for everyone. A strong contender for best album of 2013, everyone should spend some time in Comaduster’s Hollow Worlds. You won’t regret it.

Hollow Worlds is available on Tympanik Audio. [Release Page | Bandcamp Page]

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