Steve Brand: Bridge to Nowhere
Hypnos Secret Sounds

Darkened Soul: Bathys
Hypnos Secret Sounds

M. Griffin: Fabrications

Anyone operating under the belief that “ambient” is a one-dimensional genre need only listen to these three recordings to be enlightened otherwise. Heard together, the trio illustrates just how multi-hued the genre can be.

Steve Brand, a veteran of more than twenty releases under the Augur alias, recently began issuing material under his real name with the four-track Bridge to Nowhere his first for Hypnos. With three of the pieces clocking in at twenty minutes apiece, you know you're in for some hard-core ambient and Brand doesn't disappoint. He also wisely invests the material with a broad sonic palette by supplementing a number of exotic instruments (rattles, flutes, bells, conch shell, thumb piano, Indian fiddle, etc.) with found sounds, vocals, field recordings and keyboards. Time slows noticeably in Brand's material, and one's heart rate seems to do likewise—all the better to induce the meditative state one presumes he's aiming for. In “Bridge to Nowhere 1” sparse piano tinkles, deep tones, exotic flute accents, and soft, high-pitched moans drift over a serene synth base. By contrast, the sonic mass expands in the later “Bridge to Nowhere 2” until its windy howl reaches a progressively more intense pitch. Accompanied by the soft, late-evening chirp of insects, church organs lend a melancholic, hymnal dimension to “Breathing Light” that's not only calming but lovely too. The music's glacial unfurl camouflages the subtle swell in volume that occurs during the first half, and the sudden dispersal of minimal piano notes over the placid base proves arresting. As the piece moves towards its end, the insect sounds get louder, accentuating the sense of context that's subliminally persisted throughout. After an introduction of thumb piano and tinkles, “Through the Lens of Love” draws Bridge to Nowhere to a tranquil close but not before a near-symphonic coda takes the listener on a final plunge into the depths. It's the perfect soundtrack for those early evening moments when light fades and surrounding details gradually disappear into the encroaching darkness.

Bathys represents the first appearance on Hypnos Secret Sounds by Darkened Soul (real name Mike Soucy) and, as the moniker obviously implies, Soucy specializes in dark ambient moodscaping. Rather less obvious is the fact that the Greek word “bathys” means “deep” in English, and is the root of “bathyscaph” which is a submersible vessel used for deep sea exploration. Without question, the six pieces comprising Bathys are immersive, and Soucy artfully assembles his sounds into disturbing, dread-filled atmospheres. The powerfully evocative pieces suggest the industrial murmur of a factory at three a.m. that one hears faintly rumbling in the distance, the ghostly night-time fog that shrouds a harbour's gently rocking boats in gloom, and the violent churn of amplified winds roaring through a hollow, chemically rusted-out tunnel. Soucy may admirably opt for understatement in his compositional design but there's ample textural detail—rumbles, soft tinkles, vaporous thrum, etc.—in play throughout a given piece. The ten-minute title piece evokes less a deep sea plunge than torture sounds emanating from a hidden dungeon; the intermittent clanks and strikes are just abstract enough to allow the listener to conjure all sorts of violent scenarios, and the incessant churn that accompanies it only intensifies the disquiet.

Fabrications, by Hypnos founder Mike Griffin, is a different animal altogether. Eschewing synthesizers and ambient minimalism altogether, Griffin's long-promised sequel to his Sudden Dark debut (originally planned for a 1998 release, Fabrications was re-worked, retired, and re-worked again over a decade) is essentially a collection of field-recordings-based collages. But it's no slapdash affair cobbled together in a weekend or two. Griffin meticulously assembled “real-world” recordings compiled from multiple locations—freeway sounds, ocean waves, factory machinery, trains, etc.—into the hour-long recording's six pieces, some of which contain upwards of one hundred layers. What most distinguishes the collection is that Griffin 's tracks are less collages than compositions. Though constructed from field elements, the material has been arranged with obvious care, resulting in tracks that are well-conceived wholes rather than streams of random sounds. Helping to unify the recording are the vocal sounds that appear in varying degrees of prominence throughout ( Griffin 's voice moves to the forefront in “Devise” where the entranced repetition of the track title alternates with low-level industrial flow). With so many different and manipulated sounds sharing a given piece's aural space, the material begins to feel decontextualized, as if it's inhabiting an artificially-generated spectral realm. Overall, gloomy ambiance pervades the work and the recurrence of phantom whispers, rustling noises, and droning tones calls to mind the work of zoviet*france. After five pieces of modest length, Fabrications ups the ante with “Sky is Glass Lit,” a twenty-three-minute outro that's like an alternately peaceful and unsettled dream state transcribed into aural form—a description that could just as easily be extended to the album as a whole.

September 2008