'Oren Ambarchi hasn’t released a solo album since 2007, so it’s been a little while since we’ve had the chance to hear what the he’s been up to. Even still, Audience of One’s Ace Frehley cover is a surprise, and it’s one of many found on the album. Ambarchi’s releases for Touch have largely focused on his signature style of playing and processing the guitar; on Audience of One the typically Ambarchi-esque often takes a backseat in the mix, if it’s present at all. The album builds on an evolution of tendencies and techniques that tracks through Ambarchi’s earlier work, though it’s easily a bigger leap than he’s taken before. In the same vein, Ambarchi has frequently collaborated with others, but he’s never featured them so prominently on an album with only his name on its spine. From its start, Audience of One diverges starkly from the expected; by its end, the sense of surprise is replaced by that of satisfaction.
Ambarchi has flirted with conventional songcraft in the past. “Remedios the Beauty,” from 2004’s Grapes From the Estate, represented Ambarchi’s most accessible music, and “The Trailing Moss In the Mystic Glow,” which closed 2007’s In the Pedulum’s Embrace, moodily dances on the brink of coalescing into something more straightforward. None of this prepared, me, however, for Audience of One’s first track, an early contender for my favorite song of the year. Ambarchi’s usual bell-like tones and digital clicks open “Salt,” but it’s not long before Paul Duncan’s multi-tracked vocals come to the fore and it turns into a haunting, elegiac ballad. “Salt” is a song of spare beauty, even when the strings and piano rise to meet Ambarchi’s guitar, a disarming beginning to an album that doesn’t get any easier to predict as it progresses.
Just as Ambarchi surrenders the spotlight to Duncan on “Salt,” he happily works in the shadow of others on the follower, “Knots.” The 33-minute epic, replete with an arrangement for strings and horns by Eyvind Kang, builds slowly, its many voices drifting past like flotsam in a shallow pool. What begins as a hazy, somber canvas of steady drones and gentle fades grows in intensity, its tone of thorny unease escalating methodically into a climax of distortion and scattered percussion before a dark trip down the hill’s other side. The pianissimo cymbal play of Joe Talia is the string that runs through “Knots,” bowing out only after the track enters its final third. Ambarchi has often exhibited a keen sense of how to build from silence to storm, how to move from peace to pandemonium and back again. “Knots” takes these same tricks and performs them in a different guise.
Audience of One pulls so much of the focus from Ambarchi’s trusty old Washburn that it has the potential to be divisive amongst Ambarchi’s existent admirers. In its transposition of Ambarchi’s usual ideas and approaches into different environs, however, the album also has the potential to encourage attention from a wider-reaching audience, similar to the way that the deep, window-rattling tones of In the Pedulum’s Embrace made an obvious entry point for fans of Southern Lord and Ambarchi collaborators Sunn 0))). A track like “Passage” feels like a translation of Ambarchi’s older work into a new form, with piano, voice and acoustic guitar playing the parts that, in the past, might have all been handled by Ambarchi’s electric guitar.
There’s no real precedent for “Fractured Mirror,” though. Ambarchi’s version of the arpeggio-heavy 1978 Ace Frehley instrumental is an anachronism within his larger oeuvre, but even after I realized that he hadn’t penned the track, it didn’t feel out of line with the tone Ambarchi had previously cultivated. On a disc already marked by many deviations from Ambarchi’s norm, this unexpected appearance is far less jarring than it would have been appended to Suspension back in 2001. If you’ll forgive the possible over-analysis, I’ll posit that Audience of One’s title may provide a clue regarding the inclusion of the Frehley cover. The lyrics of “Salt,” redolent with reference to memory and a sense of yearning, and the faithful revision of a song penned and performed by the guitarist from Kiss, inspire a sense that I can’t shake, that Audience of One is, in part, a musical memoir, a more direct and self-referential statement than we’ve previously heard from Ambarchi. This disc is sure to rustle the feathers of some fans, but those who can adjust are treated to music that’s both the most inward-looking and expansive of the Australian’s career.'