Loscil: First Narrows

Scott Morgan's previous Loscil full-length, the superb Submers, made a strong impression upon its release as a nuanced and sensual exercise in immersive ambience. First Narrows appears to signal a radical change in approach as Morgan has enlisted the contributions of guest musicians, specifically Rhodes pianist Jason Zumpano, guitarist Tim Loewen, and cellist Nyla Rany. Given that Morgan had hardly exhausted the potential of his deep, luxuriant style with Submers, the Loscil devotee might therefore confront First Narrows with some measure of apprehension. The key issue concerns the degree to which Morgan has altered his hermetic Submers sound to accommodate the expanded group style of First Narrows.

Well, not a whole lot, as it turns out, and a closer inspection of Morgan's working methods reveals why. He initiated the project by accumulating sound sources, sampled and otherwise, generated computer patches from them, and then had the three musicians improvise over these sequences. But then he did further editing to mix the live and pre-created sections together, and it's here where Morgan's artistry most stands forth. By adopting this approach, he asserted a similar degree of control over the music as in the past, carefully shaping and sculpting it towards a final pristine form. In fact, the musicians are so delicately woven into the overall sound fabric that one must consciously extricate their contributions out of the dense masses.

The first two tracks wouldn't sound out of place on Submers and evidence no obvious discernible presence of Morgan's guests. The clicking beats in the opener “Sickbay” are overlaid by wave upon wave of sensual washes with the punctuation of a nautical bleep throughout, and “Lucy Dub” features gaseous, crackling clouds of hiss. Contributions from Zumpano and Loewen are clearly audible in the third piece “First Narrows” (the name for the main entrance into Vancouver , Morgan's home base, from the Pacific Ocean via the Lions Gate Bridge). Zumpano's sprinkles of colour and Loewen's atmospheric guitar notes merge with Morgan's reverberant washes to becalmed effect. The first conspicuous appearance of Rany's cello arrives on the last piece, the slowly unfurling “Cloister,” where the sharp-edged, guttural qualities of her bowed passes offer a complementary contrast to the ambient shimmer of the electronics. Perhaps the strongest track is the masterful “Ema” where Morgan pairs Loewen's guitar figures and echoing clusters of crackle with churning rhythm patterns. The overlapping strands ultimately form a delectable interweave of pulsating tones that surface and fade. Overall, the Loscil sound remains gloriously intact on First Narrows and, if anything, enriched by subtle instrumental shadings. Like Submers, it's a superb collection of immersive, undulating ambience that exudes an oceanic haziness and a glassy sheen.

March 2004