"You can almost smell the pot coming out of the speakers" is the description used for a Youtube video of Terry Riley’s landmark composition In C. Both humorous and honest, that single sentence sums up most of Riley’s aural effect. Either free time, pseudo-improvised pieces based around just intonation and a split between glacial drones and rapidly repeating riffs and arpeggios or rigidly measured units of melodic phrase are Riley’s main MO as any listener of the man’s work can attest to. Enveloping and arresting, the effect either results in total immersion or furious refusal, the gauzy atmosphere of slow pieces either becoming overbearing or exhausting and his faster pieces removing temporal significance with the help of endless repetition. His work has seen a goodly amount of acclaim and recognition from musicians and critics alike (as any Who fan knows), and given his long periods without releases any new recordings are openly welcomed and anticipated. Now with a release on Zorn’s Tzadik Records imprint, Riley has taken full advantage of the CD format for once and spread his love of improvisation over two discs and nigh on two hours.

Aleph poses a uniquely insurmountable feat for both the casual and the weathered listener. There are no indices or movement markers, each section flowing into the next or jarringly collapsing to reveal a chordal shift, with ‘Aleph Part 1’ showcasing more stability in its early minutes before arguably mirroring the symphonic form taken to logical extremes. Musically and notationally, this is pure Riley. His sense of scale and melodic interaction has not changed since his Dervish days, and can be declared to have merely emphasized alternate readings of the polyphony used in ‘Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band’ or its massively more popular cousin ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air.’ Both pieces mark the sonic foundations of Aleph: soprano sax and keyboards, a healthy dose of effects, and a sense of time outside of time. But while A Rainbow in Curved Air (the album) spread out these pieces over the limitations of the vinyl format, neither piece going past the 22’00” mark, here Aleph seems more about Young’s Eternal Music than a direct statement as implied by earlier pieces in the same vein. Riley has never been incredibly fond of fully modernizing his sounds, either, relying on tried and true acoustic sounds and utilizing electronics for texture more than the sake of modernity. But while that has lent a timeless feel to most of his output, here it sounds cheap and forced. Indeed, the entire piece save for the ambient drones is comprised of a soprano sax MIDI protocol freely available since the late ‘80s and still built into everything from your computer’s MIDI playback to any Casio keyboard with more than 10 sound presets. It’s like hearing a Max/MSP patch play a piece with itself, or like having a hyperactive teen who just learned how to solo plopped down next to salvaged recordings of Eno’s tape delay tests. The use of just intonation furthers this issue by making each note sound, well, out of key. That’s the effect that just intonation can have, but the natural resonance and warmth of a real instrument with real control remedies this issue into becoming a part of the brilliance of the system (Cf. Partch, Young, and the like). Once again, the effect is fatiguing without being rewarding. Even at its loudest, noise acts like Hijokaidan manage to make tunelessness into an experience that alters the way music and sound itself is perceived. Here it sounds more like an experiment in how much a human is willing to perceive something that is blatantly wrong. It’s a social experiment combined with a musical experiment – the lengths a listener is willing to go to validate an experience with only fallacious a posteriori references.

Few albums are as hard to rate as this one. One part of me (the "Self as fan/Becoming-musician") feels like this is momentous, another part ("Self as listener/Becoming-music") cannot help but feel duped and frustrated to some degree. Had this been condensed to fit within the 18 minute limit of a CD or maybe used a different sound set, this could have been Riley’s crowning achievement. Instead it comes off as a thick smell of stale pot wafting through the speakers, the sound of desire to create masquerading as desire to be creative. Not only is Aleph out of line for Tzadik, it’s out of character for Riley and a vexing album not suitable for regular reference.