Slow Dancing Society: The Cogent Sea
Hidden Shoal

That The Cogent Sea, the sixth Slow Dancing Society album by Spokane, Washington-based artist Drew Sullivan, features twelve pieces might seem too insignificant a detail to draw attention to, but in this case it's worth mentioning for the simple reason that it indicates how much his latest release moves his project in the direction of concise song form and away from ambient soundscaping. But long-time admirers of Sullivan's work needn't worry: The Cogent Sea doesn't lack for the kind of nuanced sound design for which the project has become known; it's just that in this case it's been packaged into an ever more succinct presentation. A seamless throughline can thus be drawn from the releases that came before the new one, despite the adjustment in approach.

The glimmering “Come the Morning Light” immediately returns us to familiar Slow Dancing Society territory, a resplendent soundworld where overlapping waves of radiant patterns ebb and flow. Various influences suggest themselves over the course of the piece's seven minutes, including the classical minimalism of early Steve Reich and evocative ambient splendour of Manual, but Sullivan, as he's done before, melds such influences into something that's ultimately branded with no one's signature but his own. Speaking of influences, his affection for ‘80s music surfaces most evidently during “Heaven in the Backseat” (even its title sounds like something from Bat Out of Hell), which could pass for a blues-rock instrumental performed by Journey in one of its more tasteful moments.

Sullivan is credited with all sounds on the album, with the exception of saxophone playing by Eric Marr. Synthesizers are prominent and so too are bass lines and beat patterns, but featured to a greater degree than before is electric guitar and not merely as texture but as lead instrument. “By Morning This Will All Seem Like a Dream” backs a guitar solo (and subtle sax embellishments by Marr) with an ambient backdrop in a way that might remind some listeners of Mike Oldfield during his Hergest Ridge days, while “Reach Out” memorably elaborates on the guitar theme by alternating between electric and acoustic passages. There's a somewhat raw quality to Sullivan's electric sound that also makes for an effective contrast between the refined backdrops and the earthy guitar tone.

One of the things that clearly distances The Cogent Sea from ambient music per se is the strong sense of propulsion that colours many of its dozen pieces. In place of ambient stasis, motorik bass pulsations and staccato keyboard patterns give the material a constant sense of forward motion. The nostalgic and wistful qualities that infused past Slow Dancing Society releases are present, too, not only in the content of a piece such as “Coming Back” but, obviously, in its title. In spite of its declamatory appellation, “O Captain! My Captain!” (if the title sounds familiar, it's because it originates from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass) opts for a like-minded soothing character. In the long run, The Cogent Sea registers as a well-considered advance by Sullivan: it maintains a strong sense of connection to and continuity from the previous Slow Dancing Society releases yet also offers subtle modifications in the project's enticing sound. That he's been able to effect such a change in such an organic manner on this latest effort suggests there's still room for other advances in the future, too.

August-September 2014