Album Review :: Matthew Cardinal :: Asterisms

by Max Hamilton

Matthew Cardinal’s debut solo album, Asterisms, was released in October 2020 on Arts and Crafts.  His work will already be familiar to listeners of nêhiyawak, the amiskwaciy (Edmonton) based moccasingaze band whose debut album, nipiy, was shortlisted for the 2020 Polaris music prize.

Each track title on Asterisms is simply a month and a date, which plays a large part in contributing to the nature and feeling of the project.  An ambient, meditative album, it quickly establishes a pattern in its form.  The melodies, rising up from the textural wash that surrounds them, often feel fragmentary, like a moment in a half-remembered conversation or stretch of time, without birth or death but only repetition, longing for change and resolution.  

This unresolved tension is often the propellant force behind the music.  When change occurs within a song, it does so in the wash of tone that the rhythmic snatches of melody are bathed in—the musical object is still and time passes over it the way the sun will pass over a physical object and paint it in an infinite number of variations of light and shade in its passing from morning till night in the course of a single day.  Each track can feel like a riddle, suspended in anticipation of a resolution that does not come.  But as the tracks (the “days”) roll on, every track becomes the answer to another.  The aching, screaming stillness of the previous track informing that of the present.  Gradually the melodies of each connect in memory, and slowly the composition unfolds itself.

The album title, Asterisms, refers to the lines that mentally connect stars in a constellation to each other in the night sky.  In this sense, to listen to the tracks of Asterisms as separate things would be like focusing on only one star at a time.  Each one is beautiful and fascinating, sure, but you’d be left unaware of the larger form that it is a part of.  

Cardinal’s Asterisms, given the time of its release, may forever be doomed to be seen through Covid-19’s lens of isolation and anxiety, but his work does provide an interesting perspective on such times—when all the events and sounds and distractions of life are removed and only time remains—time passing through your fingers while the unresolved melody in your head aches for a change that is deeper than the colour of light.  But as each day bleeds slowly into the next you might draw a mental line between them and find that something, after all, has been revealed.

With just a few concepts (those of the track titles, the album title, and the pattern that is consistent between the tracks), Matthew Cardinal has put forth a profound statement about time and our relationship to it.  One that is just beyond words and so will likely be unique for each listener.  This is a stunning achievement and a fabulous listen.

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