As early as 2011—well before he actually started recording the music that would become Obsidian—Los Angeles’s Will Wiesenfeld told Prefix that his second album as Baths would turn off a lot of people who liked his first. 2010’s Cerulean displayed dueling impulses: tracks like “Apologetic Shoulder Blades” and “Aminals” were bouncy, even airily pretty electronic music, while vocal-driven songs like “Heart” and “Lovely Bloodflow” demonstrated a darker, more mysterious edge. Fairly or unfairly, the album garnered the young Wiesenfeld comparisons to L.A. beat mainstays like Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing. But as Wiesenfeld has always been the first to point out, this was never really who he was.
On Obsidian, Wiesenfeld has distilled Baths’ sound in favor of pop songcraft and a consistently bleak outlook. This is a mature collection of dense, knotted, and neurotic songs. Each of the ten tracks features vocals, and all but one has discernible lyrics. The structures are schizophrenic and unpredictable, as many of these songs shift suddenly in mood, tempo, and texture. Wiesenfeld’s wide-ranging vocals are at the forefront, as he jumps variously from a soaring, ethereal falsetto to a more sing-song, child-like intonation, or from a sober, understated baritone, to an occasional rock and roll-ready delivery. The lyrics are alternately opaque and explicit, with a definite bent towards the morose—you may find yourself singing along with enthusiasm to lines like: “Phaedra it is you that made me want to kill myself.”
As it was on Cerulean, Wiesenfeld’s greatest strength lies in his ability to create and arrange sounds. Obsidian sports an oddball array of noises, arduously stitched together with few audible seems. “Earth Death” opens with the sound of unhappy animals; in the quiet middle section of “No Eyes”, it sounds as though Wiesenfeld is gently clinking and rubbing two shot glasses together; “Worsening” opens with heavily processed vocals and small percussive snaps that almost evoke a crackling fire. Likewise, echoes of diverse genres and influences abound: At times I hear musical theater in Wiesenfeld’s melodies and delivery; at others I’m reminded of Romantic era classical in his piano playing (indeed, he trained as a classical pianist for roughly eight of his first twelve years). When he sing-screams near the end of “No Eyes”: “It is not a matter of if you mean it/ But it is only a matter of come and fuck me,” it’s hard not to think of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. And the closing track, “Inter”, sounds like an otherworldly blend of jangly guitars and sacred choral music—think the Velvet Underground’s third record meets Arvo Pärt.
Not every song on Obsidian works perfectly. As “No Past Lives” alternates between a jaunty synthesized piano figure and gloomy, pounding chords, the effect is more grating than anything else, and “Earth Death” can be a bit of a slog. But the record’s high points—the elegant piano pop of “Ironworks”, the depressed disco pulse of “Miasma Sky”, or the uncomfortably confessional lyrics of “Incompatible”—make for a very strong album. As Wiesenfeld predicted, it’s likely that some Cerulean fans will have a difficult time with Obsidian. But anyone who discounts this record after a couple of listens because it doesn’t sound like what they wanted does an injustice to what they’ve been given, which is one of the most singular and sonically adventurous records of 2013.