Shield Patterns is the duo of Claire Brentnall and Richard Knox (A-Sun Amissa / The Rustle of the Stars / Glissando). Their well-received debut LP, Contour Lines, came out in 2014 on Gizeh Records. They followed up their debut with an EP in 2015 entitled Violet, also on Gizeh. Their follow-up full-length, Mirror Breathing, continues the duo’s exploration of avant-garde exploration coupled with beautiful, melodic structures. Shield Patterns straddles the line between amorphous, ambient experimentation and beautiful constructed classical pop melodies that bring an accessibility to the tracks. Brentnall exercises her talent like a classically trained singer with the evocative vocal quality of a Kate Bush or Elizabeth Frazer. Further, her lyrics match both the quality of the music as well as match-up with the vulnerable feel of every track. The electronic music is sparse, exposed, and exquisitely arranged. Mirror Breathing is ten tracks long and evokes an openness which many artists wish they could achieve.
Mirror Breathing begins with “Dusk”. The album’s very first moments are of a metallic sound clicking back and forth in the speakers with deep bass and other textures. Then Brentnall’s voice enters and the track instantly becomes organic and soothing. The arrangement is so sparse but unbelievably beautiful. There are moments where simple drones only exist, where silences live and breathe, and where Brentnall fills the cosmos with her vulnerability. She sings,
Touch me lightly, share. How you hate me, and all the ways that you care.
Touch me softly, feel shy. Be my unfinished edges, be my desire line.
Delicately tear all the fiction and flaws from the daydream in where.
You touch me gently, and cut all your thoughts into mine, all the bad and the good.
Write it down for me, draw the lines of our secret language unburdened by time.
Touch me lightly.
As “Dusk” fades, “Cerulean” begins with a rumbling din of a metallic sound of a different kind. It feels like the rumbling one makes when rattling a thin sheet of metal. Again, Brentnall’s vocals enter the mix and it all becomes just so beautiful and organic. This is the brilliance of Shield Patterns. Nothing is as it initially seems, beginning with cold, robotic sounds while immediately moving into this organic mode with subtle drones sitting under the haunting vocals.
“Sleepdrunk” has a slow, metronomic tempo that Brentnall’s voice hangs over. The sonics and tones glisten as waves of textures move in an out of the mix. There is almost a hopeful sense to the track with a fierceness that crops up in the vocals from time to time. The lyrical content of the track expresses this feel throughout.
When I am seeing double, when I am falling underneath.
The same visitors wait, almost recognizable.
When I am sleeping, I struggle, with the dream that repeats.
Same places same faces.
Here the ground is uneven, it is almost familiar.
The same errors I make, almost uncontrollable.
When I am seeing double it is clearer that way, always too little too late.
“On Needing” begins with a low growl, deep strings, and almost a sort of breathing with water sounds swirling about. This has an ominous feel, with a sort of suffocating potential to it. Eventually, brighter cords enter the mix but there is still a melancholy flavor to it all. This is beautifully emotive work at its best. The track has no lyrics in it but it speaks volumes. “Blue Shutters” begins with a clock chiming, clicks and starts, and a low humming drone. The fact that Brentnall finds a melody amidst all of the slow, deliberate noises is impressive. Eventually, strings join in to support her vocals.
“Bruises” begins with pensive tones, shimmering keys, slow stings, and vocals that remind me of Erin Fein’s work on her debut album Strange Diary. Sounds eventually flutter about while the vocals fade and the highest keys on a piano are struck in a pattern. “This Temporary Place” is the longest track on the disc and thrust the listener right into the thick of things from the beginning. The ambient textures come flowing out of the speakers from the beginning. Light beats play, floating under like a foundation as Brentnall sings with the powers of Orpheus, enchanting the listener. “Balance and Scatter”, the title track, is the most unsettling and avant garde piece on the album. There is a purposeful brokenness to this piece with high-pitch grinding and moments of giant, thudding bass amid textures and sparkling nodes. Brentnall sings amidst the shrill and the chaotic swirl, once again, to give the piece a humanness. This track straddles the line between violent overture and melodic hopefulness with acumen.
“Anymore” is the penultimate track on the album and is a beautiful synth piece. The vocals are measured, speaking of a relationship which has gone awry. “Anymore” is a striking foil for “Balance and Scatter” and is really a perfect track to sit in this space on the album. Further, the track exemplifies the careful poetic nature of the entirety of the album with Brentnall’s poetic lyrics.
Do you remember when we broke our promises? We couldn’t think of anything to do or say.
To patch up all of the missing pieces, anymore.
So we collected dusty memories from the ashes, from the rubble.
All of the ordinary, all of the love all of the trouble.
And I gave to you what you would need from time to time and day to day,
And we put the rest away.
The finale to the album is “Glow” and it begins with syncopated tapping. The tapping fades into the mix as a cello builds in the mix and keys fill out the mix. The last note on the album is one uttered from Brentnall’s silvery voice and it’s the perfect finish.
I’ve used the word “masterpiece” one other time since Somewherecold started up again and that was in reference to Signal Hill’s Alturas. Well, it is clear that I have another piece of art for which the adjective applies. Shield Patterns’ Mirror Breathing is a masterclass in the balance between the organic and the synthetic, between the formless and form, between rough textures and silky soundscapes. Brentnall and Knox have, indeed, produced a masterpiece.