Loess: Burrows

Proem: Till There's No Breath

Plastik Joy: 3:03

A summary of Loess material spanning nine years (2000-08), Burrows might seem on paper like so much house-cleaning but labeling it as such would risk devaluing the disc's thirteen tracks. The collection of previously unreleased material, new compositions, and reworks of originals by Gridlock, Tobias Lilja, Ontayso, and Quench proves Clay Emerson and Ian Pullman are first and foremost beatsmithing artisans. The hazy atmospheres sculpted by the Philadelphia duo can be rather IDM-like in nature but it's the tracks' low-end beat rumble that gives the Loess sound its appeal—a rhythm-based focus that suggests kinship with Funckarma in terms of overall approach. The wiry funk pulses snaking their way through “Troper” (a remix of Gridlock's “Chrometaphore”), “Nyckel” (which appeared on Helios's Unomia), “Cyanor” (a remix of Ontayso's “Cianuro”), and “Hohn” are so tightly wound they're like Molotov Cocktails waiting to ignite, and the clanking beats crawling through “Spetaelska” are accompanied by a background punctuation that's as loud as a muffled gunshot. The remix of Quench's “Bud” shifts the focus to gaseous dub, and the epic, slow-motion treatment shows Loess convincingly navigating Deepchord-Echospace territory. “Thresh” is a three-minute marvel of kinetic, bass-driven moodscaping, while the twelve-minute “Selkuth” adopts a less beat-centered approach, and instead finds Loess spotlighting the more delicate and emotive aspects of its sound, especially during the track's final third where the music even turns supplicating. Though the recording's content is disparate in nature and spans nearly a decade, Burrows holds together more uniformly than one would expect, in large part due to the consistency of Loess's sound. A long recording at seventy-eight minutes but a high-quality one nonetheless.

One-time Merck artist Proem (Austin, Texas native and n5MD associate Richard Bailey) re-surfaces with his eighth album on the newly awakened Nonreponse imprint. What distinguishes Till There's No Breath from other electronic releases in the burgeoning “dark ambient” genre is that it's simultaneously light and dark: the subtle and occasionally menacing sound design of the dozen settings evokes a torture chamber or dungeon but do so in peaceful manner, as if suggesting that the violent acts that occurred there are long past and what we're witnessing instead is the ghost-like residue that remains. Though track titles such as “Faceeater” and “A Skin That Crawls” suggest an underlying current of malignant threat, the music itself—while generally gloomy, claustrophobic, and dank—is restrained, even placid. Bailey presents the album as an uninterrupted, fifty-three-minute stream of ambient synth washes, string tones, percussive patter, voice samples, and vaporous ambiance, with only an occasional curdling beat pattern (e.g., “Deadplate IV,” “Alt Enter The Busket”) surfacing to nudge the material in the direction of conventional electronica. As it moves towards its end, Till There's No Breath turns increasingly beatific with the shimmering trio “Dull Throbbing,” “Grain Filters Can Dream Too,” and “Hope Is Great But We Need Caffeine” standing out as three of the set's most soothing pieces.

Plastik Joy's debut full-length 3:03 (the title referring to the morning time when the album's recording sessions usually finished) is clearly the poppiest and most song-like of the three recordings and consequently has the greatest potential for broad appeal. Abetted by the key contributions of a small circle of friends, Cristiano Nicolini and Fannar Ásgrimsson (who met while studying audio engineering in Barcelona in 2005) create music that's reminiscent of L'altra in many ways: both groups assemble their material using acoustic (acoustic and electric pianos, bass, acoustic and electric guitars) and electronic materials (drum programming, synthesizers) in equal measure, both tend to focus on richly atmospheric ballads heavy on emotive character, and both prominently feature female vocalizing in their songs. In “Hands,” the soft voice of Sarah Hellström blends with a sparkling, guitar-based backdrop in L'altra-like manner, while “True Norwegian Black Metal” and “Medispiace” are even closer in spirit to the Chicago group's sound, with s.kawasaki delivering plaintive vocal melodies in a manner not unlike L'altra's Lindsay Anderson. Extending the Chicago association further, “Problem with Humans” and “Twenty-Ninth of April” wouldn't sound out of place on a Telefon Tel Aviv album, with s.kawasaki again threading a path through a dense setting of electronic and acoustic sounds in the former and an unidentified male singer doing the same in the latter. Throughout the hour-long album, Plastik Joy hews towards the mellower end of the spectrum, with the lone exception coming halfway through “Medispiace” where a brief explosion of shoegaze fury occurs. Album instrumentals such as the lilting overture “Sleepy Quest for Coffe

e” and shoegaze lullaby “63 (She Was Trying to Sleep, I Was Trying to Breathe)” likewise favour the softer side. If Plastik Joy's fine debut doesn't quite reach the epic heights of L'altra's Different Days and Telefon Tel Aviv's Map of What is Effortless, it's at least pointing in the same direction.

July 2009