Rare is the five-track EP that manages to execute a concept from start to finish with as much depth of feeling and clarity as absent, just dust. Through the course of this collection, we feel lost. Waves of terror crash down on us. A woman reads a poem.
That woman is Gabriel Brenner’s grandmother, and her reflections are a temporary salve of comfort amidst the sea of anguish and anxiety that is Brenner’s latest EP as Pastel. And this is unlike anything he has ever done before under that moniker. Where there were pop-leaning beats and vocal structures in his earlier EPs—Bone-Weary from 2016 and It Will Be Missed from 2014—here, on this self-released parcel, there is negative space and jarring sonic experimentation. Brenner has made a sharp turn off of Pastel’s presumed path forward, but the difference in style is a consequence only of the central subject matter: absent, just dust lays bare his “complicated relationship” (per the artist) with his Native ancestry, and his experiences within and without that culture.
A soft and slow piano melody kicks off the EP; it sounds distant yet inviting, until halfway through the song it turns into an ominous one-note repetition, and then begins to unravel into unpleasant white noise. “Raze” suddenly makes sense as the title for this track when the noise begins to engulf you, ripping your insides out. At its peak, it is honestly tough to listen to, which speaks to its success in extracting a visceral emotional response from the listener—this is what trauma feels like.
The third track, “silhouette,” is the first where vocals come into play. They’re hazy and far away at first, but seem to come closer and more into focus as the song progresses, like a growing confidence in the words that are being sung. Those words are mostly indistinct, and you don’t have to parse out the lyrics to understand the feeling of misplacement; but, the words certainly help drive the point home (“The skin doesn’t lay quite right, does it?”) and the explicit calling out of historical cultural erasure shouldn’t be overlooked: “I look and I look / But the books don’t say a thing.”
The centerpiece of the collection is his grandmother’s poem, introduced in the EP’s fourth track, “braid.” She seems to identify herself as “Cherokee, for sure” and, as she says, “I think Patowatomie but I’m not sure.” This sort of fuzziness around identity is a central motif, from the album’s artwork to individual moments in the music, like the beginning of “silhouette” where we hear a muffled voice speaking as if through a dense, muting fog. There is loss in this, but there is also a sense of community through that loss, and his grandmother’s words convey this sentiment quite beautifully: “We travel these paths twisting, circling, weaving / And as we look back at the intricate design, we are woven in our travels / We see that our differences need not separate us.”
The last track is, perhaps, an attempt to “look back,” as chant-like and staccato vocals begin to layer over themselves and over a deep, reverberating thump, coming together in an unsure sort of hymn. It begins to gain its footing just before the track ends, going out on an eerie, almost despairing note. And that’s how the EP ends: without ever finding a resolution or any sense of healing.
It is a powerful artistic choice on the part of Gabriel Brenner. But what's most powerful about absent, just dust is that it lends a voice to a people precisely by expressing their voicelessness.