The Key

A 8 track ambient album (1h 12m 12s) — released October 30th 2020 on Touch

Throughout their decade-long career, Cleared - the duo of Steven Hess and Michael Vallera - have consistently positioned themselves along the narrow seam between past and future. Their work has always drawn on a complex set of influences, deeply felt and wholly absorbed, but it has invariably questioned and reimagined that legacy, sought to recast it into a sound that is distinctive and entirely their own. With The Key—their first release for Touch and first full-length release in three years—Cleared have taken a bold leap forward in the clarity and scope of their vision.

Recorded by Greg Norman at Electrical Audio, this is an album suffused with a sense of place. It was made in Chicago, at the center of a vast and fraying geometry, an abstract grid overlaid on a landscape of post-industrial decay. Along its eastern edge, the city disappears abruptly into the dim waters of Lake Michigan; this record, too, juxtaposes the industrial and synthetic with the natural world. It moves freely between the artificial and the organic, weaving field recordings with electronics, electric guitar, and percussion, and inhabits a place where the distinctions between these instruments simply cease to matter. The sounds are dissolved in a luminous metallic sheen, resonating and flickering in a brittle shimmer.

The Key was assembled and mixed by Vallera at home in the winter of 2019-2020. Chicago's pale, uncertain winter light, which renders objects with a kind of clarity, shorn of glamour or pretense, may have lent something to the album's aura of lucidity. Meditative and purposeful, Cleared display a preternatural ability to hover on a suspended moment, at the edge of what is yet to come - a liminal space between anxiety and calm.

Sustaining this mood across four ambitious tracks, The Key is the aural equivalent of a high-tension wire, its delicacy and precision belying the underlying strain. Even when the tension seems to find release—as in the downpour that engulfs "Of Air" - a sense of ambiguity remains. Is this a cleansing rain or the precursor to an apocalyptic flood? In either case, for Cleared music is by no means a refuge; it is a document of lives poised on the threshold to something unknown. In the midst of unsettled times, The Key reminds the listener of how much music such as this is needed - what a help it is to sense that others stand with us on the verge of this uneasy world - to know that others will inhabit it, share in it, and have the strength to reflect it back as something beautiful. [Joseph Clayton Mills, 2020]

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