subtractiveLAD: Where The Land Meets The Sky

Though Stephen Hummel's fifth subtractiveLAD album is a double-disc set, its second half—three long tracks of “classically-influenced ambient”—is being pitched as a “bonus” disc that's only included in the first 1000 copies of the release. That's a bit of a shame because every copy of the release should include both parts, the two together constituting a seemingly definitive artistic encapsulation of Hummel's subtractiveLAD style.

Splitting the release in this manner might suggest that Hummel's would include the aggressive pieces on disc one and the quieter material on two but, in fact, the first half features multiple examples of both styles. The bruising opener, “Through the Trees,” gets things moving with a powerful dose of downtempo post-rock built from live (or at least live-sounding) drums, electric guitar, and synthesizers. Presenting an immediate contrast, “Away From Brightness” transports the listener to a heavenly realm via long, sweeping trails of synthetic washes and stirring tones. Subsequent pieces are as, if not more, grandiose in ambient soundscaping style, their panoramic character reflected in track titles such as “Falling Out Of the Sky” and “Something Like a Star.” Contrasts abound: “A Cloudless Distance” gathers force like a supernova, its synthetic layers swelling into an immense mass, unlike “Something Like a Star” and the elegiac outro “Till Break of Day” which are about as peaceful and tranquil as one could imagine. Throughout the disc, layers of analogue synthesizers, post-rock drumming, and slow-burning guitars come together in settings that at moments call to mind the work of Robin Guthrie, Tangerine Dream, and others. Hummel covers multiple bases, including epic ambient sweep (“Away From Brightness”) and stillness (“Each Other In Darkness”), shoegaze-IDM (“The Slender Stem”), and shoegaze-post-rock (“Filament”) in the first half. Much like Hummel's previous albums, disc one of Where The Land Meets The Sky unfolds like a carefully-conceived travelogue with the listener exposed to set-pieces of varying moods.

subtractiveLAD takes a total ambient plunge on the fifty-five-minute second disc with two of the three pieces exceeding the twenty-minute mark. Crystalline guitar masses ripple and drift across shimmering synthetic landscapes in Hummel's reverb-drenched material, the meditative style reminiscent of Before the Day Breaks / After the Night Falls, Guthrie's recent two-disc collaboration with Harold Budd. The juxtaposition of icy guitar shadings and warm synthetic backgrounds is mirrored in very title of “Embers and Snow,” which segues without pause into the equally time-suspending, synthesizer-oriented dronescape “In The Tall Grass.” The unexpected inclusion of delicate piano playing in “Nocturne” imbues the shimmering backdrop with naturalistic quality (much as Robert Wyatt's piano playing does in Music For Airports) and helps brings the recording to a pretty and dream-like resolution. As stated, the nearly-two-hour Where The Land Meets The Sky is as close to a definitive statement of the subtractiveLAD art as has been presented to date. It also bears mentioning that with the release Hummel realizes n5MD's “emotionally experimental music” credo in grand and seemingly effortless style.

April 2009