Back in 2011, at the cramped, sweaty confines of the Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia, Will Wiesenfeld took a break from swaying along to his glowing, beat-blasting MacBook to talk with the audience. “This next stuff is really dark,” he warned, before unleashing some unfinished work that would eventually become the cursory tracks for his sophomore album, Obsidian. Indeed, compared to the bubbling glitchiness and acerbic wit Wiesenfeld displayed on Cerulean, this was fairly grim stuff: a breaking dam of twitchy, Aphex Twin-meets-FlyLo sounds that found the bespectacled and all-around urbane producer caught in fits of screaming agony. A few in the crowd were turned off, while many more—myself included—seemed trapped somewhere between confusion and apathy.
Listening to Obsidian, it’s clear that Wiesenfeld leaving the sun-drenched soundscapes of his debut for something far more foreboding and personal is a logical, even organic, step. As luminous as it often was, there was still something sinister lurking beneath a handful of Cerulean’s tracks, particularly the bristling, muscular “Lovely Bloodflow” and the wistful “You’re My Excuse to Travel.” For Obsidian, Wiesenfeld has simply stripped off the top layer of fluff to expose the raw pathos beneath his work. It is, as a result, a much more thematic and personal effort, not only abandoning indiscriminate bedroom-style experimentation for a cohesive descent into bleak but pop-attuned IDM, but also a starkly candid portrait of Wiesenfeld’s personal angst. When he sings of his first boyfriend on the quietly pulsing “Incompatible,” referring to their time together as a failed maiden voyage that crests with the aching confession, “I’m scared of how little I care for you,” it further cements Obsidian as the work of a rapidly maturing artist.
Of course, Wiesenfeld is too savvy to remain so consistently heavy-handed, and thankfully, his playfully sharp wit remains. “Where is God when you hate him most?” he muses on album opener “Worsening” amid a swirling cacophony of pitch-shifted voices and thrashing drumpads. The sense of sardonic, self-deprecating whimsy is what ultimately allows Obsidian to triumph, forming a kind of triangle with the album’s two other mainstays: lachrymose piano/string combinations and morphing, spiny undercurrents of electronic percussion. It’s fitting, then, that the album’s cover depicts a charcoal-smothered Wiesenfeld with only his pearly teeth visible through the darkness. Like a little silver lining of humor at the edge of a cloud, Wiesenfeld’s most powerful moments are when he’s presenting his pain with a smile.