When I wrote about the debut album of the Chicago duo Cleared, I commented on their remarkable range, which drew broad comparisons but still managed to sculpt a consistently bleak atmosphere, heavy and thick in the manner of a cloudy Chicago day. That was a great start, but their second full-length for their local Immune label represents an extraordinary leap—still using dark textures, but able to conjure an even wider array of vivid sound environments. The album is just as dark, but also looser and more musical, and it would be fitting if it represents a breakout moment for Steven Hess and Michael Vallera, who have found a zone where both their talents are simultaneously expanding and overlapping each other.
Opener “Rogues” tips off the duo’s grand ambitions, built from a long buzzy and multilayered drone with swirls of digital-delayed drum and synthetic-noise interjections. The influence of electronic music and a certain European industrialism are evident, perhaps reflective of Hess’s recent work with Fennesz, but what is really interesting here is the hypnotically looped percussion sample, which propels the track without having to provide any “beat” underpinning. It’s daring and unique and works perfectly for the track.
To this listener, Breaking Day crystallizes the strengths of both musicians better than any of their past work. I’ve heard many bits of Hess’s increasingly important range, but he just does all of it really well here—playing the drum kit traditionally on the title track, deconstructing percussion into abstracted sound on “The Harvest,” and rebuilding the kit using samples on the opener.
At the same time, there’s Vallera, who last year at this time I would have simply described as a guitarist, but who has now integrated many other weapons into his arsenal. Vallera has stepped out in the past few years as a significant presence from the Chicago scene, and here he orchestrates an ambience teeming with interesting textures and makes every moment of guitar playing count—the nasally squeal on the title track helps to transcend its chunking open-tuned riff, and his tone on the striking “No Path To Claim” is crystal-clear, classic tube-amp warmth.
There is still something fundamentally workmanlike about Cleared’s music that remains on this album. It was made from live performances by the duo in the studio. Its atmosphere suggests not only the teeming atmospheres of nature, but also humans and machine participation. But all the parts are audible on Breaking Day, and still the whole is somehow so much more.