SubtractiveLAD: Giving Up the Ghost

Speaking of ghosts, the spirit of Arovane drifts through so much of Vancouverite Stephen Hummel's SubtractiveLAD album that a Blindfold Test would invariably identify any one of this album's tracks as the work of Uwe Zahn. Giving Up The Ghost is especially kin to Atol Scrap in Hummel's controlled and measured sculpting of material and in the music's wistful, melancholy ambiance (not to mention a conspicuous Boards of Canada influence in the church-like synth chords of “Nothing Is Enough”). Yet while clearly indebted to antecedents, Hummel's album ultimately impresses for the strong emotional core that emerges over the course of its unfolding; an audible human heart clearly beats at the core of this particular machine.

Like Zahn, Hummel creates nuanced and atmospheric epics whose lush blankets of warm analogue shimmer seem to gently emanate from some spectral aether. Nowhere is that more evident than on the second piece, “Remain Removed,” even if the warped and blistered sounds in its latter moments signify the emergence of more conventional sounding electronic tropes. Certainly the album possesses an aggressive dimension (e.g., the frenetic beat skitter and bass throbs of “Martyr Relief Unit”), but what really surprises is the album's unexpected move into softer, peaceful realms at its midpoint. The sixth piece, a beatless interlude titled “My Quadrant” signals the move, as does the next, “Neostasis,” all gentle tones and peaceful ambiance, and the eighth, “Fixing A Shadow,” with its Tides-like wind sounds and harpsichord synths. The advent of the ninth piece, “The Natural Whirled,” reveals that Hummel has sequenced those gentler pieces in order to masterfully build towards this peak. The composition itself begins with gentle synths amidst silken background textures and then symphonically escalates, becoming progressively more lush when propelled by softly clicking beats; following a pause, the strings drop away to better expose the lovely synth melody with which it exits. The next song reintroduces a more aggressive feel before the album ends with a peaceful coda that one might hear as an Arovane-Eno-Boards of Canada homage.

Though the album's sound isn't new, what impresses is its compositional dimension and the manner by which its pieces evolve. Unlike electronic albums whose tracks seem more like static snapshots, the full-fledged compositions on Giving Up The Ghost delineate a clear trajectory through contrasting moods which ultimately cohere into an album experience. Despite its machine-based production, a perceptible dimension of sincere feeling declares itself, suggesting that its title is better thought of as suggesting transcendence rather than resignation.

March 2005