Austere: Solyaris

Matt Borghi: Huronic Minor
Hypnos Secret Sounds

Lull: Like a Slow River
Glacial Movements

Sense Project: The Sublime
Hypnos Secret Sounds

Four recent exemplars of the ambient genre prove that it's in no danger of dying when so many practitioners keep adding to its vast library.

Glacial Movements' latest release comes from no less a figure than English artist Mick J. Harris (Scorn, Painkiller, Napalm Death) here operating under his “ambient isolationist” moniker LULL. The hour-long Like a Slow River which pairs four long settings (twelve to fourteen minutes each) with a shorter closer, is an immersive, slow-motion plunge into the coldest of waters. In “Whiteout,” freezing winds slowly sweep across icy and uninhabitable tundra while the rumble of immense gusts and the glacial shift of glassy slabs dominate “The Sheet.” The terrain Harris evokes is so eerily vast and barren it seems ghostly, but it's not always threatening: “Treeless Grounds” suggests that it's peaceful too in a setting that recalls Eno's long-form ambient pieces. There's no question Harris's material convincingly conjures the image of massive ice floes drifting imperceptibly across the Arctic sea's surface.

Austere (a media-shy duo whose names aren't included on the release but who've been producing material for a decade) recorded Solyaris's four pieces during live improvisations conducted over a two-month period. The disc's eighty minutes are presented in their original form, unedited aside from mastering. It's an unusual recording in structure alone: the opening tracks are fifteen and twenty-five minutes, after which a forty-second voice interlude (“Launch Sequence”) and thirty-eight minute opus follow. While nominally ambient, Solyaris pushes the genre envelope slightly by incorporating extreme tonal and dynamic contrasts, exemplified by the shimmering swoops and lulling swells that lift “Seraphim” to dramatic heights. The deep space transmissions that whistle across the perpetually heaving mass during “Striae” confirm that the album's planetary imagery was well-chosen, while the woozy and trippy vibe pervading the rumbling, slow-motion space drone “Nictitate” hints that no further chemical enhancements are necessary. Time seems to stand still halfway-through when the alien chatter falls away almost completely, leaving the softly howling hum to carry on in its absence.

Huronic Minor, the first re-issue on Hypnos of out-of-print recordings by Matt Borghi, offers seventy-two minutes of becalmed drift. Song titles alone (e.g., “Leaving the Gates of the Open Harbor,” “Silent Moor,” and “Brooding Dark Waters”) suggest the music's atmospheric mood and evocative flavour. Though Huronic Minor is generally serene and lulling in spirit, close listening reveals subtle shifts in tone and mood, from placidity (“Leaving the Gates of the Open Harbor”) to wistfulness (“November's Peculiar Calm”) and dramatic unease (“Point Aux Barques”). Borghi paints artful pictures for the mind in “Gray Dawn Illumination,” with its whistling winds and earthly rumble, and “Red Sky Morning,” whose whistling tones, rendered blurry by misty morning haze, shimmer as they reach towards the sun.

Naming one's release The Sublime reeks of pretension but that may be the only misstep Robert Logan's (aka Sense Project) guilty of on this ambitious double-disc set. It's the most sonically and stylistically wide-ranging of the releases reviewed here, and boasts some truly fine moments. Each piece pursues a different direction, and thus every one brings with it surprise. It's also a less hermetic recording than the others, as Logan opens the studio doors to let vocalist Andrea Black and string players Sarah Sarhandi and Francis Logan contribute; he also broadens out the music's electronic core by integrating bits of field recordings here and there (e.g., “A Moment,” “Éjjel”) which lend the material a more naturalistic character.

After “Vidék,” a dark ambient overture, opens disc one, Black's treated voice appears amidst an equally aqueous surround during “Rain Chimes.” In the title piece, humongous groans echo within a cavernous vault and eventually escalate to become violent screeches. Sarhandi's viola serves as a lovely antidote to such harshness in the subsequent piece, the tranquil setting “Garden,” and “Death and After” provides a suitably meditative and pretty close. The intensity level increases considerably in disc two, and rises to an especially epic level in the possessed “Prime Mover” when the listener is plunged into an electronic maelstrom of industrial churn, and remains there throughout “Shards” before decompressing for the piano-and-strings quietude of “The Lamb.” “Voice of Many Waters” immediately brings the intensity level back up, paving the way for “The Beautiful” which ends the album with fourteen minutes of billowing cloud formations. Though long at two hours, there's much to admire about Logan's accomplished collection.

August 2008