Sustain / Release
Sustain / Release might well be the most satisfying subtractiveLAD set Stephen Hummel has released, which is, in itself, remarkable considering the superior quality of his eleven previous full-lengths, the first seven on n5MD and the five most recent self-released. Certainly the new one, in total time a double-album collection, exemplifies a fusion of artistic vision and technical execution that marks it as an exceptional work. Pitched as an “album of peacefulness and catharsis born of tumultuous times,” Sustain / Release plunges deeply into ambient soundscaping realms with electric guitar and analogue synthesizers as the primary sound sources.
Though guitar is a central element, Hummel doesn't solo in the conventional manner, with the guitar part separating itself from a foundational background; instead, the guitar emerges as the primary element within a mass of constantly mutating sound, and while there is a discernible separation between the lead instrument and the others, the distance between them is often small. In those instances where Hummel's guitar assumes a rather e-bow-like character, the material recalls Fripp & Eno's work on No Pussyfooting and Evening Star while at the same time moving beyond it by giving the material a tighter focus and compositional form. To that end, “Beneath You” sees Hummel operating in full Frippertronics mode, generating oceanic fields of pealing guitar figures much as his pioneering precursor did decades ago.
Hardly a one-dimensional release, Sustain / Release exploits contrast to differentiate one track from another. During “The Way Up,” flute-like whistles emerge out of a shimmering mist to bring prog into the genre mix; “The Way Down,” on the other hand, takes a bluesy turn when Hummel's guitar solos plaintively against a delicate backdrop. The towering ambient settings “The Mountain and the Sky” and “Into the Green” sustain their quietly majestic drifts for sixteen and eleven glorious minutes, respectively, but not everything is crafted into multi-layered masses. “Dragonfly,” for instance, largely focuses on the interplay between two guitars, one played straight and the other with a wah-wah, while the gentle reverie “One and the Same” ends the collection on an understated note.
At this stage in his career as a musical artist, Hummel no longer operates with categories or others' expectations in mind. The dozen settings on Sustain / Release emerge, it seems, of their own accord, as if their Vancouver-based creator has allowed the music to pass through him into the world, and his technical abilities have reached a stage where emotional states can be rendered into physical form with no apparent difficulty whatsoever.