Stray Ghost: Nothing, But Death
Hidden Shoal

The Nothing, But Death title isn't the only epic thing about Anthony Saggers' latest Stray Ghost collection. The eight-part recording, the Canterbury-based sound sculptor's full-length follow-up to 2008's Losthilde (and 2009's Each Paradise is a Lost Paradise EP) is an ambitious, seventy-five-minute plunge into deep ambient-drone melancholia. At the same time, it's hardly a one-dimensional recording but instead a complete work that contains multiple shifts in mood and arrangement. Electro-acoustic and field recording materials combine and re-combine to form drone, symphonic, and ambient episodes in an ever-mutating flow of cinematic sound. There's movement, of course, but movement of the generally slow and ponderous kind, as Saggers pursues his vision methodically and without haste, and with one part merging without pause into the next.

Saggers effects a natural segue from the album cover's water imagery to the ocean sounds inaugurating the opening part. They gradually give way to a judiciously controlled flow of symphonic ambient material where string and electronic tones gently overlap like so many waves crashing ashore. The mood, sombre yet soothing, carries over into part two where the distorted crackle and shudder of electronics adds a spacier dimension to the material's strings and woodwind elements. After straddling brooding orchestral and creeping drone styles in the clarinets' serpentine movements, the music turns vaporous as strings billow into a blurry mass. Yearning string tones give the ambient-heavy fifth part a supplicating feel, while electronic burbling re-introduces the galaxial dimension in the sixth.

One best make oneself comfortable when listening because Nothing, But Death—not nearly as gloomy as its title suggests—is a long journey, especially when its last two parts weigh in at fifteen and eighteen minutes, respectively. But such plenitude is compensated for when, in perhaps the album's most affecting section, the seventh part offers such an alluring oasis of peaceful string melodies, and when part eight likewise presents elegiac string passages that wouldn't sound out of place on a conventional classical recording. One thing that does mar the experience, however, is the intrusion of electronic distortion that clouds the closing third of part seven and parts of eight (admittedly, it's possible that such noise only appears on the reviewed copy). Such interference only takes away from the symphonic beauty that otherwise characterizes the album's final ‘movements.' When bird chirping supplants the string tones at the end, one can't help but feel that some kind of paradise has been reached. All things considered, the recording sounds like a major step forward in an artistic evolution that has been exceptionally rapid.

May 2010