Olan Mill: Paths

Paths, Olan Mill's follow-up to 2010's debut Pine (Serein), is an exquisite and exceptionally nuanced exercise in classical-electronic soundscaping. Though concise by CD-length standards at six tracks and thirty-two minutes, the release leaves a strong impression and shows Alex Smalley and Svitlana Samoylenko to be two of the most sound-sensitive of the genre's practitioners. Restraint and understatement are the operative words here, as the duo constantly focuses on striking the right balance between emotional expression and economic presentation. Though orchestral resources are at their disposal, the two ensure that no gratuitous sounds appear, and consequently every sound that is included signifies in some meaningful way (apparently the album tracks were sewn together from multi-track recordings of two late-2010 live performances in Bristol and Reading).

The tone is established at the outset by the soothing, strings-heavy meditation “Bleu Polar” and then deepened by “Springs,” a gorgeous setting that embeds multiple layers of piano clusters within a lighter-than-air mass of violins. “On Waiting” offers a brooding ambient-electronic setting wherein the violins eventually assert themselves, in contrast to the closing piece “On Leaving,” which is similarly strings-based but far more hopeful, one might even say quietly euphoric, in spirit. Field recorded materials are used sparingly, and only emerge noticeably in the nature sounds that augment the slowly fading drone “New Bold.”

Though processed guitar and pipe organ apparently were used as sound elements, Paths presents a predominantly strings-heavy sound, if one sculpted into ethereal form, and whatever other instruments were drawn upon have been modified so thoroughly that their identifying characters have receded from view. While there is a cohesiveness to the Olan Mill sound, each of the album's six pieces asserts a distinct identity; artful but not precious, Paths is thus more akin to an author's collection of short stories than a novel containing six chapters.

May 2012