Marc Barreca: Twilight Remastered + Expanded
Palace of Lights

K. Leimer: Closed System Potentials Remastered + Expanded
Palace of Lights

A couple of months ago, The Wire included a fascinating profile of the early New Age label Valley of the Sun, which issued recordings by artists such as David Naegele and Upper Astral. Unfamiliar with the imprint, I eagerly tracked down a number of its cassette releases and was charmed by the pioneering work produced by the label's synthesizer explorers, much of it drenched in tape hiss. I mention the detail here because some of what's on these similarly early works by Kerry Leimer and Marc Barreca would sound as much at home on that label as Palace of Lights, the imprint founded by Leimer in 1979. Though the two still regularly issue new material, the remastered and expanded reissues of Closed System Potentials and Twilight (both released in 1980) document how Leimer and Barreca sounded at the time of the label's beginnings. The albums, both of which include previously unreleased tracks, two apiece on the vinyl releases plus additional tracks in the digital versions, represent the beginning of a series that will document Palace of Lights' early output.

It's almost impossible to avoid mentioning Eno in this context, given the impact of his own ambient releases in the ‘70s, and the degree to which (if at all) Leimer was influenced by Eno's work is a question Closed System Potentials naturally raises; certainly there are similarities between some of what appears on the album and Music For Airports and “1/1” in particular (see “Four Pages From an Unfinished Novel”). Yet while acoustic piano and synthesizers figure heavily into Leimer's recording, he also enlarges the sound palette with percussion (cymbal accents on “Derivative”) and electric guitars (“Steady State,” “A Little Figure and the Weather”). Stylistic expansions occur also, such as when a subtle hint of gamelan seeps into the ambient tonalities and New Age whooshes of “Stationary Image.”

True to ambient form, the material unspools in meditative manner, and the listener is soothed by its relaxed drift. Adding to the sometimes wistful character of the music is the nostalgic affection one feels for an earlier time when presented with the sonorities of synthesizers manufactured long ago. By the way, that aforesaid connection to Valley of the Sun is never more strongly felt than when Leimer's blossoming ambient textures and melodic figures are smothered in hiss during “The Random in Nature” and “What We Already Know.”

To a greater degree than Closed System Potentials, which largely positions itself firmly within the ambient genre, Barreca's Twilight ranges widely through a number of different zones. There's an ethnographic dimension in play that sees him working with a variety of instrument sounds; in doing so the recording aligns itself more to the kind of sensibility Jon Hassell presented on his 1980 release Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics (co-credited to Eno) and its 1981 follow-up Dream Theory in Malaya—even if the trumpeter's distinctive horn is naturally absent from Twilight. If “The Dream Time” and “League of the Wind” relocate the dazed listener to some humid meditation outpost in a distant land, “Commerce and Industry” pushes that same listener even deeper into the jungle.

Had synthesizer-heavy settings such as “Memory Paths” and “Current Piece #1,” on the other hand, slipped onto Leimer's release, no one would have batted an eye (for that matter, “School for Whales” wouldn't sound out of place on Eno's Music For Films). Regardless, no matter how much Barreca clothes his pieces in woodwinds (“Suburbs”), jumpstarts it with punchy rhythms (“Oleo Strut”), or smothers it in urban noise (“Industrial Landscape”), the core genre remains ambient, with most of the nineteen pieces appearing as concise vignettes in the two- to three-minute range. There's lots to choose from, and one comes away from the collection impressed by Barreca's omnivorous appetite for experimentation. As different as the releases are, the impression left is of young composers excitedly exploring stylistic territory that at the time was still developing and working through the refinement of their own ambient-electronic identities.

August 2016