Darshan Ambient: Fire Light: Music from the Sultana Sessions
Spotted Peccary Music

Given its consistently excellent quality, it's hard to think of Fire Light: Music from the Sultana Sessions as supplemental material. Yet that's to some degree what Michael Allison's latest Darshan Ambient collection is, though exactly in what way requires clarification. A year ago, he issued Remember the Sultana, a soundtrack he created for a Civil War era documentary about the tragic fate of the steamboat Sultana, which has been described as the largest maritime disaster in American History. But the soundtrack's completion didn't bring about a cessation of creative energy, and Allison found himself not only with additional music created during the Remember the Sultana sessions but extra tracks that emerged after the film project ended. Fire Light: Music from the Sultana Sessions, then, might best be described as a companion album to the soundtrack released six months earlier.

For those unacquainted with Allison, a bit of background is in order, especially when it's so rich in incident. Originally from California, he migrated to New York City, where during the ‘80s he worked with figures such as Nona Hendryx and Richard Hell and played with his own band Empty House at CBGB's and TRAX. Seeing his musical interests gradually shift, he brought the ambient-electronic project Darshan Ambient into being in the ‘90s and proceeded to issue a regular stream of albums, Fire Light: Music from the Sultana Sessions being Allison's ninth studio release under the name.

In contrast to the typical soundtrack, whose content provides a cohesive narrative counterpart to the film, Fire Light: Music from the Sultana Sessions is less tied to a specific story-line, even if its suggestive track titles (e.g., “Cherry Blossoms for Papa”) could be used to produce one. The relative absence of a narrative structure doesn't diminish the impact of the recording, however, which is highly evocative and uniformly strong. Allison's skills as a multi-instrumentalist (piano, strings, trumpet, percussion, and synthesizers are among the sounds heard), arranger, and composer are put in full service to the impeccably crafted material, which ranges broadly across a number of styles; still, though a trip-hop groove lends animation to “Slow Walk to Memphis,” the balance is largely weighted in favour of soothing ambient-orchestral productions.

A brief overview of what's included hints at the riches on offer. Soft ambient light glows like the gentlest whisper in the opening “Sunrise on the Mississippi,” the stirring mystery of a creature-filled night-time is conjured by “So Close,” and an epic undertaking is intimated by the dramatic tone of “Across the River.” Using a resplendent blend of acoustic guitar, glockenspiel, and strings, Allison evokes a peaceful outdoors setting during “Water Lilies and Summer Ghosts”; a touch of Eno, on the other hand, seeps into delicate synthesizer trails drifting through “Fire Light.” All eleven settings are exceptionally well-realized evocations, each one an artful stand-alone that paints a distinct and texturally detailed picture.

September 2016