North Atlantic Drift / Northumbria: Split
Polar Seas Recordings

Toronto-and-Northumberland-based Northumbria (one-time Holoscene members Jim Field and Dorian Williamson) pairs up with Toronto-based North Atlantic Drift (Mike Abercrombie and Brad Deschamps) for a thirty-six-minute split disc on Polar Seas Recordings, which also, wouldn't you know, calls Toronto home. But while a Southern Ontario connection and a focus on instrumental ambient-electronic music are shared by the duo-based groups, there are significant musical differences between them as the six tracks on the release bear out. One obvious difference has to do with duration, with North Atlantic Drift's song-length pieces generally concise and Northumbria's long-form by comparison. But beyond that simple detail lies a difference in musical style that splits the recording into two clearly discernible parts.

North Atlantic Drift's tracks replicate to some degree the approach Abercrombie and Deschamps brought to their debut outing Canvas, with the new material also merging guitar and synthesizer elements with heavily processed percussion sounds. In the opening “Ursa Minor,” a sparse keyboard pattern moodily intones against a backdrop comprised of industrial-synthetic washes and field recording noises, whereas the similarly moody “Polaris” drapes guitar shadings across a glacial wasteland of synth accents and crunchy beats. Yet despite the fact that North Atlantic Drift cites Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid, Earth, Tangerine Dream, and Arvo Pärt as influences (certainly a Stars of the Lid influence is audible in both “Ursa Major” and “Perpetual Daylight”), one group conspicuously absent from that list is ISAN. And that's a bit of a surprise, considering how easily parallels can be drawn between the four tracks on the split release and the kind of ultra-refined electronica released (all too rarely these days, in my opinion) by Antony Ryan and Robin Saville: the synthesizer melody that appears halfway through “Polaris” is particularly reminiscent of ISAN, and much the same could be said for the graceful five-note melody that surfaces within “Ursa Major.” If anything, the four pieces suggest that it would be more accurate to describe North Atlantic Drift's music as melody-based electronica in the grand ISAN tradition more than ambient soundscaping.

Northumbria's two tracks present the first new material by the duo since the release last fall of the remix set All Days Begin as Nights on Altar of Waste Records. The first setting, “Cold Wind Rising,” announces a bit of a new direction for Field and Williamson in that it's wholly electronic. But though that might be so, the tone and style of the material is in keeping with the duo's past efforts: “Cold Wind Rising” suggests the cataclysmic whoosh of the earth opening up and unleashing some primal geological event of overwhelming force—think twelve rippling minutes of blurry roar and you're halfway there. The second piece, “Vanishing Point,” reinstates guitar and bass as Northumbria focal points, but does so sans the apocalyptic drama of its other contribution to the disc. But don't be fooled by the breathy, New Age-styled vocal exhalations: “Vanishing Point” stokes serious fire of its own, especially with the high-powered voltage of Field's towering guitar slabs leading the way—molten six-string fire never sounded so good. Ultimately, the release proves to be a split not only in form but in sound, too, with North Atlantic Drift's controlled electronic set-pieces dramatically different in style and spirit from Northumbria's elemental walls-of-sound.

June 2014