Alonefold: Last Roadpost and Alone
Somehow Recordings

Mark Hakonen-Meddings: Vapaa
Somehow Recordings

Savaran: The Wintering Land
Somehow Recordings

Yamaoka: Warm Colors
Somehow Recordings

Ambient music is sometimes referred to as “aural wallpaper,” a term that while not entirely inaccurate nevertheless contains a whiff of negativity, as if to suggest that the music's as bland and invisible as a shy wallflower at a dance. Perhaps a better way of thinking about ambient music is to think of it as “sonic tinting,” as sound that inhabits an environment in the same way that an enticing scent fills a room in ways unbeknownst to its inhabitants while at the same time surreptitiously influencing their moods. Somehow Recordings' music often has this effect on the listener, as exemplified by some of its latest releases.

Operating under the Alonefold alias, Australian-based ambient composer Scott Beardow namechecks Stars of the Lid, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, and Biosphere as influences, which offers a pretty clear hint as to the character of the music presented on Last Roadpost and Alone. The full-length, which follows on the heels of the Signpost Horizons EP that Rural Colours issued last summer, features soothing. ambient-drone settings easily capable of transporting the receptive listener to faraway realms, even if the trip is purely imaginary. Beardow demonstrates a level of control and patience in the music's execution that reflects the seasoned mark of someone with more than eight years of audio and music production study and a particular focus on synthesizers and effects programming. “Signs at Midpoint Dawn Return” exudes that meditative, hymnal quality so beloved by Stars of the Lid devotees, while “Forgiven Drifts” exhibits a similarly placid quality in its becalmed, organ-like unfurl. The album ends with two long-form settings, the first of which, “Merging and Still Alive,” could as easily pass for a seductive serenade by Slow Dancing Society piece as by Alonefold. The recording's tracks flow into one another without interruption, making Last Roadpost and Alone seem less like a collection of five tracks and more a deeply absorbing, forty-three-minute travelogue of subtly shifting moods.

Vapaa, Mark Hakonen-Meddings' first release for the Somehow label, covers a broad swath in its thirty-six minutes, with everything from ambient dub to guitar-based atmospherics on offer. The five-track release begins dramatically with “Viiva,” an electroacoustic exercise featuring piano playing that explores extreme pitch contrasts between the opposite ends of the keyboard. During the almost ten-minute piece, Hakonen-Meddings sprinkles acoustic piano chords across a blurry icescape, the sparse acoustic accents generously separated from one another to allow the ambient material to assert itself all the more conspicuously. Track two, “Vilja,” moves us into Glacial Movements territory with an ice-cold flow of swirls and subterranean rumbles that's warmed by the presence of what sound like heavily processed choral exhalations. The deep freeze continues when “Virta” brings with it even deeper rumblings suggestive of elemental underground movements. Muffled chords lend “Veri” an ambient dub-like quality, before “Voima” closes the disc with subtle guitar figures—sparse plucks and a pretty theme—wrapped in soft ambient swirls.

At twenty-four minutes, Mark Walters' Savaran recording, The Wintering Land, might be EP-length, but it's an engrossing and immersive listen nonetheless. Laid down by the Shrewsbury-based Walters during the winter of 2010-11, the five soundscapes take their inspiration from the weather-beaten countryside. Fittingly, then, one hears the sound of footsteps clumping through leaf-covered trails during “Autumnal” as droning wisps of willowy ambient tones murmur alongside. “Under Snow” manages to seem both wintry and warm at the same time, an effect perhaps explainable because its softly wavering tones envelop the listener so invitingly. A slightly different wrinkle surfaces during the brief closer, “Awakening,” when the icy electronic elements are joined by the ruminative meander of acoustic piano playing. The journey's not a long one, but there are enough fluttering textures in the recording's five tracks to make the trip worthwhile.

In contrast to the other releases (the Alonefold and Savaran especially),Yamaoka's Warm Colors merges with the environment to a considerably lesser degree, as its eight pieces are much more extroverted and bold—closer in spirit to kosmische musik than ambient per se, it turns out. “Tom,” for instance, careens through the far reaches of space, its echoing, hot-wired keyboard patterns evading a constant battery of meteor fragments as it does so. Neon-lit patterns rise and fall in waves, generating a psychedelic effect that carries over into the even more animated, even agitated “F-point.” Keyboards provide the primary source for the tracks' glimmering motifs, though guitar loops form the basis for “Tap” (a chattering drum machine even turns up during “Ceramic” ostensibly turning the piece into a techno workout). Generally speaking, the material pulsates in a way that recalls ‘70s-era Tangerine Dream (“SAN” and “Clock-wise,” with their burbling keyboard patterns, two cases in point) and the music is at times less soothing than unsettling. In those moments where it moves into electronica-IDM territory, Yamaoka's music also would be a natural fit for labels like U-cover and Hibernate.

May 2011