Christ.: Distance Lends Enchantment to the View

Layton & Wood: When? Softly

Plum: Different Skin

Talvihorros: Some Ambulance

These four releases are among the last new ones we'll hear from Scottish label Benbecula as it recently announced that it's shutting its doors this fall after a ten-year run, and how especially regrettable such news is when, generally speaking, the material on the recordings is so strong.

Christ.'s Distance Lends Enchantment to the View is the sound of a man comfortable in his skin and making it all sound easy. By now, enough ink has been spilled over Chris Horne's long-ago connection to Boards of Canada so we won't revisit tired ground but instead cut to the chase. What we've got here are ten tracks delivered with no fuss and plenty of charm and personality, all of them displaying Horne's talent for blending analog synthesizer melodies and crisp broken beats. With eight previous Benbecula releases of various types lining his CV, it's no wonder the latest Christ. material sounds so clear-headed in conception and design. Whether we're talking about the earthy breaks rolling through “Dirty Sun,” the bucolic dreamscape “Adam's Bridge,” or the thunderous powerhouse “Event Horizon They Waited,” the Christ. sound remains intact. Horne grounds “Guides Tones” with a skanky head-nodding pulse in a track whose late-inning voice samples nudges the material into a Boards of Canada orbit. “Alexandria Genesis” likewise pairs analog synth curlicues and funky breaks in a cut that wouldn't sound out of place on Music Has the Right to Children. What ultimately creates distance between the two artists is Christ.'s preference for a harder-edged, breaks-based sound in tracks such as “Odyssey 31” and the deeply funky blazer “Animus.” Top of the pops in this go-round has to be “Toynbee,” a transporting cut with a breezy seaside vibe sweetened with quietly joyous melodies and a funky hip-hop sway. Distance Lends Enchantment to the View finds Horne not trying to rewrite the rule-book but simply serving up forty-five minutes of tracks sure to satisfy his many Christ. followers. Certainly there are enough twittering drum machines and hot-wired melodies on hand to keep them satisfied until the next collection appears—wherever that might be.

London-based Ben Chatwin follows up last year's Talvihorros debut album It's Already on Fire with with an installment in Benbecula's Mineral Series, Some Ambulance. The forty-one-minute collection presents a further refinement of Talvihorros' electroacoustic style, and sounds like an altogether more accomplished release on compositional grounds by comparison. Acoustic, electric and prepared guitars act as the nucleus in the eight tracks, which in their final form are hardly what could be labeled simply “guitar” pieces. Rather, Chatwin augments their natural and treated sounds with organ, piano, banjo, analogue synthesizer, percussion, and electronic manipulations in such a way that, though guitar may occupy the center, the resultant sound is full and rich. It's also emotive, with most of the tracks opting for a melancholic spirit that is cumulatively powerful. The album boasts a handful of beautiful meditations, with “Hope / Again / Sleep” one of the most affecting. In its multi-layered mix of guitars and keyboards, the piece exudes—strange as it may sound—an almost Hergest Ridge-like quality. In the hypnotic opener, “Handwriting (Part I),” blurry fields of gauzy textures gradually swell into a wave-like slab. What starts out in “Etude III” as a peaceful setting for acoustic guitar, organ, and glockenspiel gradually gains force without sacrificing its dream-like ambiance. In “Etude IV,” soft carousel melodies sing a lonely song over a lilting funereal rhythm, while tremolo guitars dominate during the mournful waltz “Death of a Dream.” Sunnier in spirit, “The Blue Cathedral” parts company with the others in having a bright, celeste-like melody inaugurate the song's slow and steady advance. Though the tracks complement one another, each ultimately feels like a different chapter in Chatwin's wide-ranging and engrossing novel.

When? Softly, the second album on Benbecula by collaborators Christopher P. Wood and John Layton, is also a Minerals Series instalment as well as the successor to the duo's Sfumato released earlier in the year. The first thing that makes When? Softly unusual is that each of the nine tracks was laid down in real time using zero software intervention; the second thing is the nature of the material itself, with each track a meditative setting where bass and guitar elements intertwine against a dense backdrop of electronics and acoustic instruments. As a result, there's no narrative arc per se but instead an oft-echoing field of sonic splinters, loops, chords, and fragments caught in perpetual motion. Dramatic whooshes cross paths with shuddering melodies throughout the hour-long set with much of it draped in ambient textures. Clear contrasts between the pieces can be heard. “Reluctance” achieves a kind of time-suspended gracefulness in its spacious commingling of guitar shadings, electronic flourishes, and hand percussion colourations. Prodded by a soft rhythmic pulse, cross-currents of guitars and effects in “Slow Fall” assert themselves aggressively. The sound world sculpted in “The Innocent” feels spectral and even haunted, especially when wailing noises appear amidst the fluctuating mass, while “Unknowing” feels brooding, ruminative, and explorative. When? Softly is certainly immersive, and demands that the listener attend carefully to the material in order to follow its constantly-mutating unfurl. And there's without question a wealth of sonic detail in play at any given moment. Having said that, the tracks do have a tendency to sometimes sound a bit too much like variations on a single theme, and the free-floating, improvisatory nature of the material grows progressively less captivating the longer the recording goes on.

The wild card of the bunch is clearly Different Skin, the debut full-length by Plum aka Scottish lass Shona Maguire who also has the distinction of being Benbecula's first (maybe final?) female act. It's the most song-based album of the four with Maguire's crystal-clear vocals the central element in ten stylistically diverse settings filled with acoustic guitars, drums, and synthesizers. Maguire's voice flies solo amidst a bluesy trip-hop groove in “Goosebumps,” a decent but not spectacular opener which is bettered by the shorter second track, “Lullaby,” which reduces her voice to a mere whisper but entrances nonetheless with its gentle synthetics. Her vocals work best when they're multiplied into a polyphonic weave, as they are in the a capella title track where a seductive choir wraps itself around a haunting lead vocal melody. Electronics play a heavier part in the dreamy mood-piece “The Eagle and the Penguin,” which gets a considerable boost from strong melodic writing, and the brooding evocation “The Dragon,” which again adds her wordless voice as ethereal texture to the instrumental base. The arrangements are rich and well-rounded but Maguire's greatest strength lies in her song-writing ability and specifically a gift for melody. A song such as “As Trains Pass By,” for example, ends up lingering more on account of its wistful melodic line, even if its sensual arrangement impresses too. At thirty-six minutes, the album hardly overstays its welcome either.

September 2009