Shifts is a seven-track album by Calgary-based multi-instrumentalist and Drone/Noise wanderer Valiska aka Krzysztof Sujata, a regularly appearing artist here at AmbientExotica of whom I am a huge fan. Released in December 2013 on the local Unit Structure Sound Recordings in tape form, it is available to purchase and stream at Bandcamp, with the tapes being shipped in January 2014. The humble reviewer is consequentially biased, the realization of content and context as delivered by the artist, however, defies personal preferences, as even the most devoted fan of any musician cannot always relate to a concept. Valiska’s Shifts freely gives the artist’s pivotal approach away with its title, only to then camouflage it, making it more notional and felt, less adroit. But first things first, as the title unites several meanings: Shifts is originally inspired by a road trip from Vancouver back to the artist’s hometown of Calgary. During the voyage of approximately 12 hours, Sujata encounters repetitive natural sceneries, torn apart by hamlets and industrial complexes. Then there is the description of Whitney Ota in the liner notes: "Lakes, Creeks, Rivers and Oceans separate us just as those tall mountains do." Another much more personal shift takes place in the job-related life of the artist, and last but not least, there is the self-imposed task of a shift that separates this album from Valiska's other works and EP’s. Here comes the crucial point of my forthcoming analysis which, I need to boldly add, does in absolutely no way spoil the majesty and dichotomy of the album; it is only related to Valiska’s intention of delivering a shift from his previous works. This approach fails. Boo, hiss? No, because Shifts is as fascinating and coherent as expected, and better still, it concentrates and sheaves all the fibers, structures and particularities of the composer's previous works in a dedicated way. Classic pianos, acoustic/electric guitars as well as organs and magnitudes of static noise plus raspy frequencies are once again in close proximity to each other. The question remains whether Shifts contains one too many titular particles and tendencies. Is Valiska’s vision harmed by uncertainties, and are there colors in here that subvert the front artwork? More about these and other musings in the following paragraphs.


The majestic, dun-colored Jericho Tides floats from the music-unrelated outer boundaries into the epithelium of Shifts… or, alternatively, was first uploaded on SoundCloud as a masked teaser for this album. I wondered back then why Valiska did not add this beautiful composition to his frequently backed monographic show Assortments on Bandcamp, but now the reason is oh so clear. The atmosphere, meanwhile, is not at all clear. Jericho Tides is a yearning piece of translucent organ rivers, haunting siren-like cherubim cascades and aerose backing pianos. The arrangement then showcases two increasingly incisive forces which are found in all of Sujata’s tunes: dualistic guitar streams which are equally heartwarming and mildly sorrowful on the one hand, and the slow rise of frequency-altering filters on the other, arriving here in the shape of electric current with its typical buzzing tremolo. The enmeshment of the textures is next to perfect, the occurring euphony floating around the listener. Despite the many coatings, every instrument is clearly recognizable – even to the poor soul, i.e. me, who mixes up processed guitars with synths ad inifinitum –, the reversely played guitar figments tower in high regions. Valiska somehow manages to introduce each layer at the beginning and then reintroduces it over the course of Jericho Tides’ runtime without ever sounding formulaic or revealing a modular concept. In short, the opener is one of the most beautiful compositions the artist has created thus far: melodious, sepia-toned, iridescent qua its organ and a tad raucous, marrying Drone with noise and harmonious overtones.


Midnight, False Creek takes over the thread of seemingly reversely played formations and sees warm 8-bit reverberations conflate with stuttering legato string washes. The concoction is transparent and fully graspable at first, so connoisseurs already sense where this is going to end, namely in a cautiously built up turmoil of twirling textures. This is indeed the case, but only partially so, as Midnight, False Creek maintains the graceful state, showcasing granular strings, silkened dark matter backups and wafting winds. Torn between hymnic elation and tumular threnody, it embodies the contrastive nature which is so often found in the artist’s compositions. It defies a clever explanation, the unveiling of its presumably real driving factor, the definite emotion. It is trapped – one could also say: enshrined – in its emotional range.


Up next is the duo of Hills And Fog I and II, the track title being eminently fitting and the harbinger of an atypical undulation. If you expect hazy Drone washes of the moist kind, you’d be wrong, for pristine fogginess and implied isolation can also be presented via the interplay of sound and silence. This is exactly what happens in both parts. Hills And Fog I launches with another movement of backwards played shards whose stern incision works all the better before the black backdrop; it also provides a splendid stage for the wonderfully staggering piano tones, the mildly saltatory oscillation between a thundering low frequency oomph and their vesiculating aeriform counterparts. Cracking branches, shifts (!) in timbres and the shuttling between bloom and decay feel cinematic and magical. After three and a half minutes, fulminant sawtooth serpentines pierce through the formerly fragile diorama, electric guitars cut through the gradually mephitic air. A graceful state is reached in the final state, before the appendix Hills And Fog II is an exclusively string-fueled take of the rufescent kind, presenting dusky evening guitars with dragonfly-evoking stereo-panned flaps in tandem with spheroidal echoes.


The next stop is Shuswap, dedicated to the eponymous lake in British Columbia, a shelter-giving oasis where the soul is cleansed and the body is refreshed. Too prosaic and prospectus-oriented? Not in the given context: this is the only piece off Shifts that is undoubtedly and completely freed from any darker undercurrent and, well, shift in general. Naturally, the artist does not succumb to super-bolstered harmonies, but realizes a similarly enchanting modus operandi via – I kid you not – Latinized bonfire twangs on an acoustic guitar which become intertwined with diffusely cracking boughs and piano tercets. To be honest, there are short moments of contemplation, but they are less thought-provoking than usual. Oddly enough, silence plays an even bigger role here than on any other track. It both swallows the frequencies and allows their afterglow to illumine the sea. Shuswap does not present the titular lake as is, Krzysztof Sujata rather transforms it into a weathered aural painting. The omission of a field recording boosts this impression further. Detachement and distance are supposedly just another two synonyms for the concept of shifts.


A Denseness Of Trees is the penultimate construction and a very enchanting and dense one. For once, Valiska returns to the Drone formula, the physiognomy of the strings is presented in full legato fashion. Only a few seconds shy of the four-minute mark, the track entraps a standout texture which, if overused, would have harmed the album, but is fortunately only interposed here to the greatest possible effect: an eerily cosmic Space-Age siren that flutters around the string-driven river. Gaseous and otherworldly, it functions as a counterpart to the closely set layering. The track title may rightfully hint at a natural scenery, but Valiska has not created a still life, not even a sylvan vista; it much more resembles the semi-brutish gestalt of a synth-oid fleeting visit to the swamps of Hauntology. Radio Limits, the final artifact, then merges the deepest of all guitar-based belly-massaging low frequency drones with mildly apocalyptic but still strikingly gloomy desperado guitars and forlorn piano prongs. The last shift turns the pointillistic dolefulness into a whitewashed churchly aorta, still pulsating, but covering the clefts with drones of despair. That Shifts ends on this note is only consequent: Valiska’s music has never depicted a Hollywood-compatible happy end.


Shifts, as it turns out, is a prophetic album title, perfectly suited for describing the innermost set of intrinsic principles. Multitudinous shifts both happen between the seven tracks and throughout the arrangements themselves. In a way, Valiska has revealed the trademark cohesion that holds all of his tracks together, no matter where they appear and when they have been originally released. Many of these developments are subtle, others sudden and forceful. An artifact of a carefully shapeshifting unfolding would be Shuswap which only shifts between textures and patterns but retains and worships the graceful gaze onto the panorama, whereas Hills And Fog I not only differs from its next of kin Hills And Fog II, but craftily shifts from its gyrating piano solemnity towards joyously aggressive walls of noise.


Shifting between Drone and noise-interspersed neo-classical sections, the album inherits and emanates the viewpoint and aesthetic vision of the Calgary-based artist and, in the end, transparently projects this endeavor for the first time. The album title multiplexes the artistic approach, true, but if the listener cares much more for the song-related side and the stringency of the surfaces and melodies, there is plenty to gain and absorb as well, with the opener Jericho Tides being the glaring torch in this regard. It is a magnificent composition that emits the simultaneity of antagonistic forces. As an optimistic person, I distill the positive, uplifting alloys and interpret the electric guitar drones as elysian, but am at the same time fully aware of the sad undertones and portentous markers; the name Jericho rings a bell – or blows a horn – after all. Shifts is neither Valiska’s sunniest or most experimental album, nor does it comprise of cavalcades of different textures or static noise maelstroms. It is no mere electro-acoustic record either. Never too crestfallen a work, Shifts fathoms contrastive moods, genres, textures. The result is, as ever, powerful and coherent. If you adore melodies as much as the willful alteration – and possible destruction – of these faux-fugacious entities, the complete works of Valiska deliver… and so does Shifts.



Further listening and reading: 

  • Shifts can be purchased and fully streamed at Bandcamp.
  • Follow Valiska on Twitter: @TheValiska.



Ambient Review 304: Valiska – Shifts (2013). Originally published on Jan. 8, 2014 at