Lee Bannon somewhat sardonically described his last outing, Pattern of Excel, as a case of "Walmart ethereal". It seemed an accurate label for a sound so immaculate and coaxing. On ‘DAW in the Sky for Pigs’, an eldritch piano recital degraded as if recovered from a forgotten archive, Bannon collaborated with Kara-Lis Coverdale, a link-up that - along with the beatless azure digital cleanse that defined the rest of the album - seemed to encapsulate the extent to which he’s recently embraced his experimental inclinations.
A vaunted producer who initially made his name with beat production as one of the Pro Era crew, eventually finding a creative foil in Joey Bada$$, he now finds himself on Hospital Productions, an imprint helmed by Dominic Fernow of Vatican Shadow and Prurient. Following the submerged mirage-laden jungle and drum n bass of Alternate/Endings and the skulking boom bap of that famed work with Pro Era, American Zen is the latest in a prolific line of releases that don’t seem to conform to an easily discernable chronology.
Despite Bannon’s tendency to shapeshift, there’s always been a depth to his work, one that can also be traced through the lavishly accompanied beat calibrations and Burial-like ache of ‘Caligula Theme Music’ and ‘Cope’ through those forays into UK street futurism and modern golden age influenced hip-hop to where we are now with American Zen, the second big release under his Dedekind Cut guise.
Unlike his last significant outing under the moniker - a collaboration with Rabit which involved an indeterminate shadowy ambience punctuated by eruptive breakbeat demolitions - American Zen, as suggested by its title, unveils a similarly imposing but more enervated character. On the title track the sound approaches a kind of haunted minimalist new age, one of eternal loops and endless expanse. ‘Caution’ is more easeful, almost motionless, a rough unfurling of dense organ sounds that shares the quiet, devotional grace of Aine O’Dwyer’s Music for Church Cleaners.
Although those first moments prove intoxicating in atmosphere, it’s with ‘Déjà vu, in reverse’ that Bannon excels at a sound that consolidates the imprints of his previous explorations into a towering heavy hitter. As if drawing on the dying echoes of Alternate/Endings, the track rips through a devastating five minutes of jacked bass-rattle before turning to a tenebrous sustain of menace in the final half, bringing to mind the relentless reductionism and hi-def murkiness of Felix K’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. With ‘So far.. so good’, the sound is held in a similarly static calm to that of ‘Caution’ but amidst the persistent, frozen ambience is an unidentified woman’s voice offering ambiguous navigational advice ("continue on past the lake…") Throughout most of it small, hollow explosions resound, as if fireworks were being set off in a final climactic tribute. It goes to show just how adventurous Bannon has become.
While Bannon has always defied chronology and genre in some way, Pattern of Excel felt like a conspicuous break with previous material. In light of his consistency for - an appealing and rewarding - inconsistency, it would probably be pointless to predict his next course. Nevertheless, if Pattern of Excel was the first stride in a more experimental phase, American Zen is the sound of such a phase reaching an exciting fruition.
American Zen is out now on Hospital Productions.